Study: Indiana voucher students fall behind in math

Students who use Indiana’s voucher program to transfer from public to private schools aren’t seeing the test-score gains they may have expected. When it comes to academics, they could be better off staying in their local public schools, according to a long-awaited study released today.

The study, by Joe Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame, finds that voucher students experience significant losses in mathematics achievement after they transfer to private schools. Receiving a voucher did not have a significant effect on English/language arts test performance.

The findings are based on a detailed and rigorous analysis of ISTEP-Plus scores for students who received private school vouchers in the first four years of Indiana’s program.

The study follows a spate of negative evaluations of voucher programs in Ohio, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. But Indiana’s program is especially helpful to study. It’s the nation’s largest and most generous voucher program, enrolling more than 34,000 students; and it is unusual in that private schools that participate must administer state standardized tests the same as public schools.

You can read a detailed report on the study on the National Public Radio website.

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Private schools that got voucher waivers were losing state funding

Four schools jumped to the front of the line when the Indiana legislature offered to waive accountability requirements for low-performing private schools that benefit from state-funded tuition vouchers.

And no wonder. Those four religious schools had seen their voucher funding drop by over $1.2 million in two years after being sanctioned for persistently low marks on the state’s A-to-F school grading system.

The law that legislators approved this spring says private schools can have the sanctions waived if a majority of their students demonstrated “academic improvement” in the preceding year. It doesn’t spell out what academic improvement means, leaving it to the State Board of Education to decide.

The board voted 6-2 last week to approve one-year waivers for the schools that requested them: Central Christian Academy, Trinity Lutheran and Turning Point School in Indianapolis and Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne. As a result, the schools can resume adding voucher-funded students this fall.

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Indiana public schools ‘out-grow’ charter, private schools

School-choice advocates argue that children will get a better education if they can leave public schools for charter or private schools, especially in urban areas. The Indiana Growth Model tells a different story.

It suggests public schools, overall, are performing better than charter schools or the private schools — most of them religious schools — that are getting state vouchers.

The growth model is a statistical tool that measures students’ test-score gains compared to those of students with similar academic histories. It may not be perfect, and critics argue that it shouldn’t be over-used. But it’s unquestionably a better measure of school effectiveness than standardized test scores or school grades, which have been shown to correlate closely to student demographics.

You can download 2012-13 growth scores for all the schools in the state from the Indiana Department of Education website. Sort and rank them, and what do they show? Continue reading

Tax credits for private-school scholarship donations: Yes, Indiana has them

The New York Times reported this week on abuses in state programs that provide generous tax breaks for donations that fund scholarships for private K-12 schools.

The article, which focused on Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, said the programs were created to “help needy students escape struggling public schools.” Instead, they’ve turned into a way for religious schools to milk the public treasury, often to benefit families who could afford tuition without help.

“This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization,” the Times says.

The article says eight states have programs that provide tax credits for donations that are funneled to private schools through nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations.” And yes, Indiana is one of them.

Indiana’s tax-credit scholarship program is small and limited to low- or middle-income families. On the other hand, Indiana last year enacted the nation’s most extensive voucher program, in which the state – not private donors – gives money to parents to send their children to private schools.

Some of the Christian schools that receive voucher funding in Indiana provide the same A Beka and Bob Jones curricula as the sectarian schools described by the Times, rejecting evolution, teaching that God created the world in six days and presenting a politically biased picture of American history. Continue reading

Why not ban private schools?

Super-investor Warren Buffett has received a lot of ink lately for his assertion that he and other rich people should pay taxes at as high a rate as ordinary working folks. But maybe you haven’t heard about another Buffett proposal, one that is equally provocative: Ban private schools.

It’s apparently not a new idea for Buffett, but it got renewed notice in January with a Time magazine cover story. “He’s only half joking when he says he’d like to see private schools banned so that rich families would be forced to invest in the public K-12 system,” wrote Rana Foroohar.

Jason Kamras, chief of human capital with the District of Columbia Public Schools, endorsed and elaborated on the idea in a recent Q&A with Hechinger Report. What’s required, he said, is eliminating not only private schools but any form of school choice: No charter schools, magnet schools or home-schooling. Everyone’s children would attend public schools, with assignments made by lottery.

As a result, Kamras suggested, engaged and empowered parents, instead of trying to find the best school for their own child, would devote their energy to making sure their kid’s school is the best it can be. “If these changes were put into place, how fast would it take to turn things around?” he said. “Five minutes? Ten?”

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, supported the idea in a 2010 essay, attributing it to Buffett. She later made an apparent about-face, becoming an aggressive champion of parental choice, even advocating publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, says Finland doesn’t allow private education – and that’s one of the secrets of its success in combining excellence with equity.

Of course, private schools won’t be outlawed in America, which has a long history of religious education – and where the idea that successful people can do whatever they want with their money is almost a religion in itself. The Supreme Court would no doubt find a right to private schooling in the Constitution.

But the value of the “thought experiment,” as Kamras calls it, is that it lets us imagine how things might be different if all parents had a personal stake in ensuring that every school served the needs of all its students. Would so-called education reformers still argue that class size doesn’t matter when talking about their own children’s schools? Would they insist that money isn’t important? Would they applaud a single-minded focus on raising test scores in math and reading?

Or would we find a way to create schools that provide rich opportunities for all, for “other people’s children” as well as our own?

Plucker blogging at Ed Week

Indiana University professor and Center for Evaluation and Education Policy director Jonathan Plucker is guest posting this week on the Rick Hess Straight Up blog at Education Week.

Plucker kicked off Monday with a piece on the PISA and TIMSS international assessments – and how Americans typically draw the wrong lessons from the way our students’ scores compare with those of students from other countries.

According to an IU news release, look for Plucker to also write about “excellence gaps” between high-achieving white, Asian-American, African-American and Hispanic children; the No Child Left Behind Act waivers that the U.S. Department of Education is granting; and Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully’s recent book about a year at Indianapolis Manual High School.

Tax season: in Indiana, private schools reign supreme

There’s nothing like doing your Indiana taxes to bring home the extent to which this state has tilted tax policy to benefit private schools. The state offers generous credits and deductions to taxpayers who spend money on the private K-12 schooling of their own or other people’s children — but not those who support public education.

There’s the private school/homeschool deduction, which lets taxpayers deduct $1,000 per child for the cost of “tuition, fees, computer software, textbooks, workbooks, curricula, school supplies … and other written materials” for children who are homeschooled or enrolled in private elementary or secondary schools.

Of course, parents who send their kids to public schools can’t deduct the often considerable costs that they pay for books, fees and supplies. Indiana remains one of a few states that require most public-school parents to pay for their children’s textbooks.

There’s also the school scholarship credit, good for 50 percent of any contribution to an organization that awards scholarships for students to attend private K-12 schools – with no limit on the amount of the credit per individual. An attempt by lawmakers to provide a similar credit for donations to foundations that support public schools was rejected by the Republican majority.

And the $250 federal tax deduction for money that educators spend out of their own pockets to provide books and supplies for their classrooms? Indiana doesn’t allow it. You have to “add back” that deduction before calculating your Indiana income taxes.

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, and state Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, unloaded on the way state tax policy has shifted at a recent legislative update sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Monroe County, according to the Bloomington Herald-Times (subscription required).

“It is now the policy of the state of Indiana that private education is in front of public education,” Pierce said. “Read it in the tax policy.” Continue reading

Public schools, private schools and tin-eared reformers

Michael Winerip of the New York Times created quite a stir recently with a column in which he pointed out that many prominent advocates of public-school reform are graduates of private schools. Actually, the most revealing thing wasn’t the column but the way Winerip’s critics responded.

Andrew Rotherham at Eduwonk called it “a pointless exercise in rhetoric and divisiveness that’s beneath the New York Times.” Kris Amundson listed Education Sector people who consider themselves reformers and who went to public schools. (But then, aside from obsessive policy wonks, who’s heard of Education Sector?).

Democrats for Education Reform founder Whitney Tilson mocked the column as exposing the fact that “a handful of people associated with efforts to reform our K-12 public education system went to – I hope you’re sitting down – PRIVATE high schools! Oh, what a high crime! How indefensible!”

Quite a reaction. And all Winerip did was take note that many of the most influential figures in the reform movement – including Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, Barack Obama and Davis Guggenheim — went to private schools.

He undercut his credibility by getting the name wrong for the organization that Rhee founded. But the column was still informative, if only for pointing out that, while Bill Gates argues that public schools should increase class size, his alma mater boasts on its website that the school “promotes relationships between teachers and students through small class sizes.”

Regarding the reformers’ reactions, blogger Alexander Russo tells it like it is:

“ … the fact that reformers don’t like having the private school issue raised and respond to it so angrily suggests (a) some sensitivity, (b)a bit of a tin ear on issues of class, and (c) a corrosive sense of entitlement when it comes to media coverage and commentary. Even the most occasional criticism or skepticism is cause for an attack. It’s an alienating, and amateurish response given how credulous and complimentary the media (including the New York Times) have generally been towards reform efforts.”