Indiana election a model for pro-public school candidates

There’s a lot of buzz this year about the idea that education could be a winning issue for Democrats in the 2018 election. Candidates who are thinking about highlighting their support for public schools could look for inspiration to the 2012 Indiana election for superintendent of public instruction.

Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, won with a campaign that focused on her support for teachers and her opposition to vouchers and test-based school and educator accountability. In the solidly red state of Indiana, Ritz upset the Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, a hero of the national “education reform” crowd. Her grassroots campaign succeeded even though she was outspent more than 5-to-1.

Glenda Ritz

Glenda Ritz

Yes, Ritz was running to be Indiana’s chief school official, so it made sense that the race focused on education. But education should also be front-and-center in elections for governor and state legislature, offices that makes the laws governing how schools operate.

Ritz won by mobilizing teachers and their friends and supporters. Scott Elliott, then a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, analyzed the results and concluded she won via “a teacher-led movement, online and word-of-mouth, born of frustration with Bennett, his style and his policies.” If that kind of movement can elect a state superintendent, it could elect governors and legislators too.

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Charter-school study ‘one piece to the picture’

Indiana students lost ground academically after they transferred from public schools to charter schools, according to a new study by Indiana University education professors.

The students tended to catch up with their peers if they stayed in their charter school long enough. But here’s the rub: many did not. The study found that nearly half of the charter-school students returned to public schools within three years after leaving them.

The results don’t mean that charter schools are doing a bad job, said Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor in the IU School of Education in Indianapolis and one of the authors. Research has shown that students are likely to fall behind any time they move from one school to another.

“The problem is, charter schools were created as an option where that sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen,” Murphy said. “It’s about the expectations and how they’ve been marketed.”

The researchers presented the study, “Unfulfilled Promises: Transfer to a Charter School and Student Achievement in Indiana,” at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York. Along with Murphy, authors are Gary Pike, Patricia Rogan and Demetrees Hutchins.

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Charter-school ‘evaluation’ reads like boosterism

The State Board of Education released its first report on Indiana charter school outcomes this month. The report includes a lot of information, but overall it reads more like pro-charter advocacy than the “formal evaluation” the state legislature requested.

The report claims to compare charter schools with public schools serving similar students and concludes that “brick-and-mortar” charter schools generally do a better job. But it uses a questionable methodology and leaves out important details and performance criteria. Tellingly, it cites pro-charter sources as authorities and unquestioningly adopts talking points about “innovation” and “autonomy.”

The report sets the tone at the start, boasting that “leading experts rank Indiana No. 1” for charter schools. But the only expert it cites is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an organization that exists to promote charter schools and that gives Indiana A’s for its charter school support.

“The way it leads off, grading the law — it definitely comes across as kind of a cheerleading piece,” said Indiana University education professor Chris Lubienski, who reviewed the report last week.

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‘Distressed’ schools lost funding

No wonder Gary and Muncie community schools are distressed. Both Indiana school districts have had their budgets cut dramatically over the past decade. It’s not surprising they’ve struggled to pay the bills.

Muncie’s general fund, the part of the budget that pays educator salaries and most operating expenses, was reduced from $55.4 million to $42.5 million over the past six years, according to figures from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. That’s a 23 percent cut.

Gary’s decline has been even more stark. Its general fund budget dropped by more than half, from $104.4 million in 2011 to $50.1 million in 2017.

The state declared last year that the districts were financially distressed; oversight of the schools has been turned over to the state’s Distressed United Appeals Board, and they are being run by emergency managers. This year, legislation making its way through the Indiana House would put Ball State University in charge of Muncie Schools. In both cities, elected school boards are being marginalized.

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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

Are charter schools public schools?

Is a charter school a public school or a private school? Both education historian Diane Ravitch and Rutgers professor Bruce Baker have discussed the question in recent blog posts.

The conventional answer is, of course a charter school is a public school; it just operates under a different set of rules than so-called traditional public schools. But as Ravitch and Baker point out, it’s a little more complicated than that.

“Those who casually (belligerently & ignorantly) toss around the rhetoric that ‘charters are public schools’ need to stop,” Baker argues. “This rhetoric misinforms parents, teachers and taxpayers regarding their rights, assumptions and expectations.”

The argument that charter schools are public schools rests largely on two factors: 1) they are funded primarily by the public through state and/or local taxes, and 2) they are established by public agencies.

In Indiana, the adoption of the nation’s most extensive education voucher program makes factor No. 1 less of a bright line. Private schools get considerable public funding through vouchers awarded to students. Is that so different from the per-pupil funding given to charter schools?

Regarding factor No. 2, it used to be that Indiana charter schools were sponsored only by public entities, answerable either directly or indirectly to the voters: local school boards, state universities and the mayor of Indianapolis.

But the Indiana legislature expanded sponsorship in 2011 to include 30 private colleges and universities Continue reading