Voucher program a subsidy for religion

The Indiana Department of Education has released its 2017-18 school voucher report, providing more evidence that the state voucher program has evolved into something very different from its original design. It is now a massive government entitlement for religious schools and their students.

Indiana has awarded $154 million this year in private-school tuition vouchers to 35,458 students attending 318 schools. All those numbers are records, and nearly all the voucher schools are religious schools. The program keeps growing, although the growth has slowed.

Voucher advocates claim the program doesn’t cost the state because subsidizing tuition is cheaper than paying for students to attend public school. But many of the students have never attended public school; and there’s no clear evidence that, without vouchers, they would have.

According to the state report, 56.5 percent of students receiving vouchers this year have no record of having attended a public school in Indiana. That percentage grows every year.

Continue reading


Jonathan Plucker straight up

Jonathan Plucker has been guest-posting this week at Education Week’s Rick Hess Straight Up blog, and it has been great reading for anyone who’s interested in Indiana education politics or education policy in general.

Plucker was director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy until last fall, when he returned to his home state to become a professor at the University of Connecticut. He offers an inside take on the email controversies involving former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett, along with original thoughts about teacher preparation, poverty and special education.

// Tony Bennett – Plucker did work for Bennett’s Indiana Department of Education, and he likes Bennett while being blunt about some of the man’s faults. Notably, he helped develop the initial framework for the state’s A-to-F school grading system, the subject of the Bennett email flap. “IDOE staff eventually took our model in a different direction, one I didn’t agree with,” he writes, downplaying the frustration that he no doubt felt.

// Teacher preparation – We don’t really know a lot about what types of preparation produce the best teachers, he writes. Therefore it makes sense to encourage innovation and let “1,000 flowers bloom” while evaluating what works. He says teachers are professionals and should have some control of what it takes to join the profession.

// Mitch Daniels – This is Plucker’s take on the emails in which Daniels, the former Indiana governor, insisted that students and prospective teachers shouldn’t be exposed to American history according to Howard Zinn. He says attempts at political intimidation are a fact of life when you work in state policy. Continue reading

Teachers with advanced degrees: good for elite schools, bad for the rest of us?

Gov. Mitch Daniels recently recalled his Indianapolis childhood and teen-age years in a sweet and nostalgic “My Indiana” essay for the Indianapolis Star.

“I was lucky to attend a tremendous public school system,” he wrote, referring to Washington Township schools and North Central High School. “During my senior year in high school, at least three of my teachers had Ph.Ds. The next fall when, naïve and a little scared, I showed up on a far-away college campus full of prep-school types, I found myself better prepared than most of them.”

Is it maybe a little ironic that Daniels and Superintendent Tony Bennett pushed through the legislature a teacher compensation law that devalues the advanced degrees that Daniels’ teachers possessed?

The law, adopted in 2011, says no more than 33 percent of a teacher’s pay calculation can be based on advanced education and years of experience. Until now, it’s typically been 100 percent. According to the Indiana Department of Education, the law remedies the fact that teacher salaries were based on education and experience “despite data that shows these components have little or no relationship with teacher performance.”

Yet Daniels believes he was lucky to have learned from teachers with Ph.Ds. And today, exclusive Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis, where 100 percent of graduates are admitted to college, boasts on its website that its teachers have an average of 20 years of experience and one in five have doctorates.

Maybe education and experience count for students whose parents can afford nearly $20,000 a year in Park Tudor tuition – just not for the rest of us. Continue reading

What to do with Indiana’s budget surplus – if it’s real

The words “structural surplus” should raise a red flag for anyone who has followed the history of Indiana state government finances. But more on that later.

Let’s assume that Gov. Mitch Daniels knew what he was talking about when he said Indiana is running a structural surplus of more than $500 million – in other words, the budget is structured so that the state takes in at least a half-billion dollars more than it spends per year.

As a result of the state’s having spent less than it took in for several years, Indiana’s budget reserves reached $2.155 billion at the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year, state Auditor Tim Berry said this week.

Under a law approved by Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by the governor, some of the excess will go to taxpayers in the form of a tax refund of about $100 per individual or $200 per couple, to be handed out next year. But there could be alternatives.

First, Daniels claims that implementing the federal Affordable Care Act could cost the state $50 million to $65 million a year to set up health insurance exchanges and another $200 million a year to expand Medicaid to cover the working poor. Those figures are likely to be worst-case estimates. But even if they’re accurate, implementing the law would take only half the structural surplus.

But this is an education blog, so let’s suggest a couple more options:

// Create a state-funded pre-kindergarten program at least for poor and at-risk children, something that 39 other states have already done. Continue reading

Recapping the legislative session – sometimes inaction is OK

When it comes to education, the 2012 session of the Indiana General Assembly may be best remembered for the bills that died, not for the ones that passed.

Lawmakers did accomplish one notable deed, boosting state funding for full-day kindergarten to where parents will no longer have to pay for the privilege. To which we say: It’s about time.

As for what lawmakers didn’t do, the following measures were apparently given serious consideration but died a merciful death:

— Allowing school boards to mandate the teaching of “creation science”
— Prescribing standards for the singing of the National Anthem at school events
— Barring schools from starting fall classes before Labor Day
— Ordering a return to a single-class high school basketball tournament
— Requiring schools to teach cursive writing as part of the curriculum

You have to think that some legislators must have too much time on their hands to come up with such ideas.

Full-day kindergarten was part of House Enrolled Act 1376, which passed right before lawmakers adjourned early Saturday morning. It increased the state grant for full-day kindergarten to $2,400 per child – up from $1,190.60. Schools should no longer have to charge full-day kindergarten fees, which in some districts have exceeded $1,000. In fact, the bill prohibits such fees starting this fall.

Gov. Mitch Daniels identified full-day kindergarten as a priority six years ago, but it got sidetracked by economic difficulties and, some would argue, other priorities. Continue reading

On saving education reform from the reformers (and from abandonment)

“How to Rescue Education Reform,” a guest column in the New York Times written by Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond, should be required reading for anyone who thinks top-down reforms will be the salvation of American schools, and also for those who think schools don’t merit national attention.

Writing from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Hess and Darling-Hammond decry the current gridlock between Republicans who reject any federal role in education and Democrats who think effective policy can be dictated from Washington.

“We sorely need a smarter, more coherent vision of the federal role in K-12 education,” they write. “Yet both parties find themselves hemmed in. Republicans are stuck debating whether, rather than how, the federal government ought to be involved in education, while Democrats are squeezed between superintendents, school boards and teachers’ unions that want money with no strings, and activists with little patience for concerns about federal overreach.”

They argue the federal government should focus on what it can do well:

— Encourage transparency in state-level measurement and reporting of educational effectiveness.
— Ensure students’ constitutional rights, enforce civil rights regulations and make certain that funds for low-income and special-needs students are spent appropriately.
— Support basic research.
— Use competitive grants to leverage innovation. (The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program tried to do this, they write, but it became overly prescriptive and stifled original thinking).

“Since decades of research make it clear that what matters for evaluating employees or turning around schools is how well you do it — rather than whether you do it a certain way — it’s not surprising that well-intentioned demands for ‘bold’ federal action on school improvement have a history of misfiring,” they write. Arguably the same could be said of some “bold” state actions: e.g., Indiana’s prescriptions for how schools are to evaluate, retain and compensate teachers.

Indiana’s missing millions

The news that Indiana state government misplaced $300 million over the past five years because of a computer software error would be comical if the effects weren’t so serious. That’s almost exactly the amount of money, after all, that Gov. Mitch Daniels cut from state funding for public schools in 2010.

While state Senate Democratic Leader Vi Simpson called for an investigation, Daniels brushed off the mistake, according to the Indianapolis Star, joking that “Christmas came early” and the state’s finances are in better shape than anyone realized. “Governor: Indiana in stronger fiscal condition” was the headline on the state news release announcing the discovery.

Sorry, Governor, but the state treasury isn’t your private bank account. And your humor may be lost on the teachers and other school employees who lost their jobs as a result of state budget cuts, along with the parents whose children are attending schools with fewer programs and larger classes.

Indiana kindergarten funding still falls short of costs

Full-day kindergarten funding for Indiana schools is expected to be $1,190.60 per student for the 2011-12 school year, the Indiana Department of Education announced this month.

That’s a little more than the $1,030 per student that schools received last year. But it’s nowhere near enough to cover the difference between half-day kindergarten, which the state funds, and a full-day program.

That means many parents can expect to again pay fees if they enroll their children in full-day kindergarten, just as they have in the past.

When Gov. Mitch Daniels announced increased funding for full-day kindergarten in April, the headline over his news release said, “Governor calls for increased education funding, completion of full day kindergarten.” The Republican-controlled legislature boosted annual funding for full-day kindergarten to $81.9 million from $58.5 million.

Some people thought that meant the program would be “fully funded” – but no. The increase enabled some school districts that hadn’t offered FDK in the past to provide it. But per-student funding increased by only about 15 percent.

Most Indiana schools spend around $6,000 per student to fund their operations. At that rate, you could argue the cost difference between half-day and full-day kindergarten is about $3,000 per student. The state grant covers less than half of that.

Some districts have used grants and federal funds to provide free full-day kindergarten in high-poverty schools and for low-income parents. But many have charged fees for parents who can afford it, and they’re likely to continue to do so. (In the Monroe County Community School Corp., the fee last year was $1,300).

The Indiana Constitution calls for a “general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” Nothing says the state has to fund kindergarten. But as the constitution suggests, free public education for all is an ideal that’s worth trying to accomplish. For young children, we’ve still got a way to go.

Education researchers: Current ‘reforms’ will produce few gains in achievement

Indiana University education professors Jonathan Plucker and David Rutkowski offer up some hard truths about current education “reforms” in a recent Education Week column.

While supporters tout the reforms as silver bullets, they say, the “dirty little secret” among researchers is that the changes almost certainly will have little effect on student performance.

“Volumes of nonpartisan research over the past 20 years suggest that most reforms (e.g., vouchers, charters, merit pay) have marginal effects on student achievement,” they write. “Reforms that show benefits usually produce effects that are so small they call into question the enormous resource and opportunity costs of the interventions. Put simply, most education reforms are not effective, and those that show even a sliver of potential are very inefficient.”

The point about resource and opportunity costs is significant. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett spent political capital pushing through an education agenda that lacked broad public support. Continue reading

Lawsuit challenges Indiana voucher law

Judges have already blocked the implementation of anti-abortion and anti-immigrant laws approved this spring by the Indiana legislature. Will the school voucher law be next? We could find out soon.

Twelve Indiana citizens sued Friday in Marion County to challenge the voucher law, which Gov. Mitch Daniels, state Superintendent Tony Bennett and Republican legislators rammed through the legislative process despite no evidence of broad support. The complaint may be spearheaded by the Indiana State Teachers Association, but the plaintiffs are a diverse group: three clergymen, a couple of college professors, a school superintendent, a principal, teachers and parents whose kids attend both public and parochial schools.

They argue that the voucher program, which provides taxpayer funding for parents to transfer their children from public to private schools, including religious schools, violates three sections of the state constitution:

— Article 8, Section 1, which says the state must provide “a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”
— Article 1, Section 4, which says that “no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.”
— Article 1, Section 6, which adds that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

“This use of taxpayer funds is incompatible with the provisions of the Indiana Constitution to safeguard Indiana citizens’ freedom of conscience by ensuring that they are not compelled, through the taxes they pay, to support religious institutions, ministries, and places of worship against their consent,” the lawsuit states. “And it is contrary to the Constitution’s directive that the General Assembly provide for the education of Indiana children through ‘a general and uniform system of Common Schools.’”

A 40-page legal brief, filed with the lawsuit, fleshes out the argument and seeks a preliminary injunction to bar the voucher law from taking effect.

On the surface, the second and third arguments would seem almost a slam dunk. Continue reading

Checking up on Mitch Daniels at AEI

Gov. Mitch Daniels got several things right in his closely watched May 4 speech on education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

He acknowledged that, for all the hoopla over Indiana’s expansive new private-school voucher program, the vast majority of students will continue to attend public schools. And he made the key point that the success or failure of Indiana’s education reforms will depend on how they are implemented.

Daniels kept down the bombast, generally refrained from demonizing teachers’ unions, and even had a kind word for President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, praising their focus on teacher effectiveness and charter schools.

You can watch video of the speech and a follow-up interview at the AEI website. You’ll see that, while some in the audience were looking for Daniels to signal his intention to run for president, he kept it low-key – more like a guest lecture for a college class than a tryout for the national political stage.

But some of what he said calls for scrutiny:

Teacher effectiveness — Daniels said teacher quality is “the dominant variable” in determining student success. “Some have quantified it as 20 times … the importance of whatever’s in second place,” he said. Previously, he has said teacher quality is 20 times as important as any other factor, including poverty, a bogus claim. If he had said teacher quality was the most important school-based factor, we wouldn’t argue.

Indiana test scores – Decrying evaluations that rate 99 percent of Indiana teachers effective, Continue reading