Hoosiers push back against DeVos

Education advocates in Indiana have a unique perspective on the radical school-choice policies that Betsy DeVos is promoting as U.S. secretary of education, said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Hoosiers have seen how a school voucher program that was sold as a way to help poor children escape “failing” schools can evolve into something quite different: an entitlement for middle-class parents to send their children to religious schools at public expense.

Teresa Meredith

Teresa Meredith

“In Indiana, the voucher program has really changed,” Meredith said in a phone interview. “There is now no cap on the number of vouchers. Families with a really decent income can qualify. And the data are telling us that most kids getting vouchers are already in private schools, or that was the family’s plan all along.”

DeVos came to Indianapolis Monday to speak at a policy summit of the American Federation of Children, the pro-voucher advocacy group that she formerly chaired. She was expected to unveil the Trump administration’s school-choice proposal but offered few details.

She did say it would be “the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.” She said states would be able to opt out of the expansion, but it would be “a terrible mistake” to do so. She derided voucher opponents as “flat-earthers” who are trying to keep education in “the Stone Age.”

Across the street from the hotel where DeVos spoke, public-school advocates organized by Indiana teachers’ unions rallied in opposition. (You can watch a video of the rally/news conference posted at 5:31 p.m. Monday on the ISTA Facebook page). They argued that vouchers divert money from public schools to private schools that aren’t accountable to the public and can refuse to enroll children they don’t want. Continue reading

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ISTA priorities go beyond state budget

Improved school funding is at the top of the Indiana State Teachers Association’s 2017 legislative agenda. But it’s not all about the money. Also high on the list are supporting students who experience childhood trauma or developmental delays and helping teachers get better at what they do.

The ISTA also wants to put less emphasis on standardized tests, hold schools harmless for low grades until testing glitches are sorted out, improve teacher salaries and check the growth of private school vouchers and charter schools.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

“All of these proposals are part of putting kids first in Indiana, making kids our first priority,” said ISTA president Teresa Meredith, who unveiled the agenda Wednesday at the Statehouse while appealing to lawmakers to focus on the more than 90 percent of Indiana students who attend public schools.

A top ISTA priority, Meredith said, is helping schools implement “trauma-informed care,” which recognizes and responds to the impact that adverse childhood experiences – such as abuse or neglect, family violence, substance abuse, mental illness and divorce — can have on development. The ISTA wants the legislature to create a safe and supportive schools program and fund training grants for educators.

Meredith cited reports that 26 percent of children experience a traumatic event before age 4 and research that finds childhood trauma linked to poor school outcomes, later mental health and substance abuse issues and a shorter life span. Continue reading

Why is the ISTA supporting a Republican culture warrior?

Here’s a question with no clear answer: Why has the Indiana State Teachers Association endorsed a conservative Republican with a weak record on education for re-election to the Indiana Senate?

The decision, to back Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, over Democratic challenger Mary Ann Sullivan of Indianapolis, has politics watchers scratching their heads — and in some cases venting their outrage.

Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star calls it “truly a shocker.” IUPUI professor and former Indiana Civil Liberties Union director Sheila Kennedy calls it “inexplicable.” Larry Grau of Indiana Democrats for Education Reform accuses the ISTA of acting out of spite and turning its back on public education. Star columnist Matt Tully insists the endorsement demonstrates “just how morally bankrupt it (the ISTA) is.”

As Elliott and Kennedy point out, it’s not surprising that the ISTA didn’t endorse Sullivan. As a member of the Indiana House, she has taken positions that are anathema to the group. In 2011, she voted for expansion of charter schools, limits on collective bargaining for school employees and test-based evaluation and merit pay for teachers – policies that Gov. Mitch Daniels, Superintendent Tony Bennett and the Republican majority pushed through the legislature. She co-authored the charter-schools bill and co-sponsored the teacher evaluation legislation.

But Waltz also voted for the 2011 education bills that Sullivan supported. And he backed the most questionable of that year’s education measures: taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for private schools. Sullivan voted no on vouchers. So why wouldn’t the ISTA at least sit this contest out? Continue reading

Lawsuit challenging Indiana voucher program to proceed despite setback

Good for the Indiana State Teachers Association and the plaintiffs in Meredith v. Daniels for deciding to continue their legal challenge to the Indiana private-school voucher program.

The ISTA announced Friday that it would go forward with the lawsuit despite Marion Superior Court Judge Michael D. Keele’s denial of an injunction that would have blocked the program from taking effect.

“This week’s ruling was only the very beginning of the litigation in this case,” said ISTA vice president Teresa Meredith, a Shelbyville teacher. “It’s important to Indiana and its public schools that we continue to pursue this challenge, and we will pursue it before the trial court and higher levels of the court system.”

The plaintiffs, who include teachers, parents, and clergymen, may or may not prevail. But at least we will find out whether Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution means what it says: that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

Keele, in a thorough and clearly written decision, denied the request for an injunction because, he said, the plaintiffs didn’t provide evidence that they were likely to prevail on the merits of the case. He said the voucher program doesn’t provide money directly for religious institutions – parochial schools – because the vouchers go to parents, who decide where to spend the money for tuition.

But as the ISTA points out, the claim that vouchers give parents a choice about their children’s education is bogus when 97 percent of schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools.

As Scott Elliott reported in the Indianapolis Star, all 45 Marion County private schools that signed up for vouchers are religious schools; about three-fourths are Catholic schools. That’s pretty much the pattern across the state – except that Gary, one of the state’s largest cities and home to some of its lowest-performing public schools, has only two voucher schools: a Christian academy and a Seventh-Day Adventist elementary school.

Of the more than 250 schools statewide that will accept vouchers, maybe a half-dozen are not religious institutions. And some of those charge tuition that is far beyond what a low-income family can pay, even with the help of a $4,500 state voucher.

In Indianapolis the choices are St. Barnabas, St. Christopher, St. Pius X, St. Philip Neri, etc. … To paraphrase a well-known conservative, that’s not a choice, it’s an echo.