Cost calculation missing from voucher report

The annual school voucher report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education includes lots of useful and important information. But something is missing.

Gone from the 122-page report is the “special distribution” calculation, which gave us an idea of how much the voucher program could be costing the state’s taxpayers. In its place is a new calculation that shows how much it might cost if all voucher students attended Indiana public schools.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said the old calculation was dropped because the result “can be misleading as it does not show a true depiction of what the cost/benefit situation is.”

That’s true, but neither does the new calculation. It’s obvious that many families receiving vouchers never had any intention of sending their children to public schools, so the cost of their education amounts to a new expense for the state, not a savings. The voucher program has become a state subsidy for religious education.

The special distribution calculation provided a sort of worst-case estimate of the net cost to the state of the voucher program. In 2015-16 the figure was $53.2 million.

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Superintendent-elect starts strong with transition team

Against the crazy national political news, here’s an encouraging development in Indiana: Jennifer McCormick, the newly elected superintendent of public instruction, has picked a solid group of education professionals to help with her transition to office.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

The team includes school administrators, policy experts, leaders of education organizations and others who are familiar with education issues in the state. Notably absent are the conservative ideologues and school-choice advocates who have been prominent in state school politics.

“The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best departments of education in the nation,” McCormick said in a news release.

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School choice group bankrolled campaign

I still hope Jennifer McCormick turns out to be a good superintendent of public instruction, one who looks out for students, teachers and public schools. But my optimism takes a hit when I look at her campaign finance reports for this year’s election.

McCormick got a big surge of late cash — $100,000 in October – from Hoosiers for Quality Education, the pro-voucher and anti-union organization started by Carmel businessman Fred Klipsch. In 2016, the group gave the Republican candidate $130,000, more than one-third of all she raised.

Hoosiers for Quality Education, despite its name, isn’t a grass-roots organization of Indiana folks advocating for better schools. Its funding comes from a handful of big donors, many of them out of state. They include Red Apple Development, a sister company of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, and K-12 Management, a for-profit that runs online charter schools.

Over the years, much of the group’s money has come from the American Federation for Children, a group headed by the Michigan Republican activist Betsy DeVos, reportedly a leading contender to be named secretary of education by President-elect Donald Trump.

The American Federation for Children PAC restocked its coffers this year with over a half million dollars from DeVos and her husband Dick, an Amway heir, and $300,000 from Alice and Jim Walton, two of the siblings who own over half of Walmart. It got $100,000 from Tennessee GOP rainmaker James Haslam. Continue reading

Superintendent election part of GOP wave

Jennifer McCormick won big over incumbent Glenda Ritz in Tuesday’s election for Indiana superintendent of public instruction. How did she do it? The explanation is simple:

McCormick ran as a Republican.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

And running as a Republican was about all a candidate needed to do in this year of a massive GOP sweep in Indiana. Anyone with an R beside her or his name was likely to win.

That’s not to suggest McCormick wasn’t a good candidate. She ran a respectful, issue-focused campaign, and she may prove to be an excellent superintendent. She is an experienced educator. She has promised to keep politics out of the office, probably an impossible pledge to keep but a worthy objective.

But her victory wasn’t a mandate for policies or pledges. It was a function of Indiana turning bright red in the Year of Trump. Ritz, the darling of teachers’ unions and public-school advocates, didn’t have a chance. Neither did any other Democrat.

“I think it was a wave election for Trump that swept in the Republicans at all levels,” said Paul Helmke, a professor of practice at Indiana University and former mayor of Fort Wayne. “Even when Glenda Ritz was the incumbent and presumably still had the same support from teachers that she had four years ago, when there’s a big wave, there’s no way you survive in those situations.”

McCormick got 53.4 percent of the vote to Ritz’s 46.6 percent, according to unofficial figures. In the governor’s race, Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb beat Democrat John Gregg by about the same margin – even though Gregg, a former House speaker, is smart, funny, Hoosier to the core and ran a strong campaign.

Trump got 57 percent of the Hoosier vote to Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent. In the only no-name state race, Republican Curtis Hill got 62.3 percent of the votes for attorney general. In Southern Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, Trey Hollingsworth, arguably the worst candidate Republicans could have chosen, smashed Shelli Yoder, who was the best candidate Democrats will ever find for the contest.

You could argue that Ritz and Gregg beat the spread.

The results were surprising, though. Recent polls showed Gregg and Ritz leading. GOP insiders looked to have written off the superintendent’s race; they didn’t try to keep up with Ritz in campaign fund-raising. House Speaker Brian Bosma and Education Committee chair Robert Behning seemed almost caught off guard when they discussed the outcome with WFYI’s Eric Weddle.

But mandate or not, congratulations to McCormick, and good luck. Let’s hope she advocates for public schools, rejects the fool’s gold of school choice and stands up to anti-public education legislators. May she hire strong professional staff, not the partisans who surrounded Tony Bennett, Ritz’s predecessor.

Before Bennett came along, Republican Suellen Reed who served four terms as a rigorously nonpartisan Indiana superintendent from 1993-2009. That’s a model McCormick would do well to emulate.

Candidate claims own path, but will it matter?

Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, seemed to walk back her support of school vouchers at a candidate debate this week. She also came out forcefully for better pay and more autonomy for teachers.

But that may be too little, too late to win her much support from educators, often a key constituency for anyone who wants to be elected the state’s chief school officer.

McCormick is challenging Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who won the loyalty of many teachers by slaying the education-reform dragon Tony Bennett in the 2012 election and later by standing up to Gov. Mike Pence and his appointed State Board of Education.

At the debate, which took place in Fort Wayne and can be watched on the State Impact Indiana website, McCormick attacked Ritz for sloppy management of the Indiana Department of Education and poor communication with school districts. Ritz defended her record and pointed to her Vision 2020 plan for universal pre-K, less testing and improved high school graduation rates.

Ritz’s supporters have cast McCormick as “Tony Bennett 2.0,” a kinder, gentler version of the former superintendent, whom teachers loved to hate. McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools, insists she’s just a professional educator who decided to run out of frustration.

“It is time we put students before politics, which has not happened for the last eight years,” she said.

That’s a smart statement, because going back eight years takes in Bennett’s tenure as well as Ritz’s. But the idea that you can remove politics from an elected office in this era of Continue reading

Data on choice-segregation link easy to find

Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, said this week that she wants to see the data tying school choice to segregation. It’s not hard to find.

A good place to start is the excellent series of stories on race and segregation in Indianapolis schools produced this summer by Chalkbeat Indiana, WFIU and the Indianapolis Star. One story describes how charter schools became some of the most segregated schools in the city, many of them nearly all African-American and a few largely white. Another tells about an Indianapolis Public Schools magnet school where most students are white and almost none qualify for free school lunch.

Here are a few other sources, local and national:

  • Marc Stein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University, published an article in 2015 showing charter school choice in Indianapolis produced “higher degrees of racial isolation and less diversity.” Black students enrolled in charter schools with more black students than the public schools they left; and white students enrolled in charters with more white students. Charters were becoming more racially isolated.
  • A study this summer from three leading educational researchers finds that schools have become significantly more segregated by family income in the past two decades. A factor, they say, is the growth of school choice programs, with affluent families taking advantage to place their children in more desirable schools, regardless of where they live.
  • A new study by Steven Glazerman and Dallas Dotter of Mathematica Policy Research looks at the factors that cause parents to rate some choice schools better than others. They find that white parents, especially, favor schools where more students were of their own race and class. “Teacher Wars” author Dana Goldstein writes about the study in Slate.
  • A research review by William J. Mathis and Kevin Welner for the National Education Policy Center finds choice leads to segregation. “While some choice school enrollments are genuinely integrated,” they write, “the overall body of the research literature documents an unsettling degree of segregation—particularly in charter schools—by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner status.”
  • The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has documented segregation in charter schools for years. A policy paper from the center says charter schools “are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”

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Will voucher support hurt superintendent candidate?

Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction, says she rejects politics and wants to provide effective management for the Indiana Department of Education. But the message isn’t convincing when her campaign supporters include some very political people.

Or when McCormick joins them in embracing Indiana’s controversial school voucher program.

And let’s face it: Making and administering state education policy is a political process. It’s probably always been that way, but it became much more so when Republican Tony Bennett was elected to the office in 2008 and began using politics as a club to reshape education.

McCormick, the school superintendent in Yorktown, Ind., since 2010, is challenging Glenda Ritz, the Democrat who upset Bennett in the 2012 election. She hasn’t yet provided a lot of specifics about policy, but she supports Indiana’s voucher program, which provides state funding to send children to private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools.

“I’ve been a huge proponent of parents being allowed that choice,” she told Chalkbeat Indiana.

That should be a deal-breaker for many people who support public education. Leaving aside the matter of taxpayer funding of faith-based schools, vouchers cost the state up to $53.2 million last year, according to the Indiana Department of Education. That’s money that could have gone to public schools.

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