From the Statehouse

Not so fast: Indiana senators worry about cost of expanding preschool

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at School 55

Advocates were hopeful that broad support for a plan to expand free preschool programs for low-income Indiana kids would sail through the legislature next year, but several lawmakers are now raising concerns about cost.

Although Indiana’s House leadership has already come out strongly in support of expanding the state’s preschool program, key players in the senate said today that they remain skeptical about added costs.

The state’s current $10 million preschool program serves 1,585 kids in five counties, but demand for the program far exceeds availability.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he wants to make a more dramatic expansion, doubling or tripling the program. And he’s not alone — incoming Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Board of Education and incoming state schools superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, have all called for more kids to have access to preschool.

A number Indiana educators and policymakers have said the research on the benefits of preschool are solid, but the debate in the capitol could come down to funding.

Republican Sen. Luke Kenley, chairman of the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee, said 37 of the state’s largest districts already offer preschool, with no extra money from the state. He said setting aside more money for teacher pay might be just as effective a way to improve education in the state.

“I don’t think we know if (preschool is) the silver bullet that’s going to solve all our education problems versus funding more teachers,” Kenley said. “If 37 (school districts) can implement this with no funding being provided by the state at this point, I’m not sure why it is that we think there’s something else we’re supposed to do.”

Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Portage, agreed that it was premature to make a decision about funding preschool without knowing what the new governor and state superintendent will prioritize and what federal funding might be available. Instead, she called on Indiana to make kindergarten mandatory.

“We still don’t even mandate that children go to kindergarten in this state,” Tallian said. “The age where a child must attend school is not 4, it’s not 5 — it’s 7. So I think we need to take care of that.”

expansion plans

Betsy DeVos promises an expansive school choice plan, says opting out would be ‘terrible mistake’ for states

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In a speech to the advocacy group she previously led, Betsy DeVos hinted that an aggressive plan to expand public funding of private schools through the federal government is on the way.

The U.S. education secretary offered few details about the plan, which she said would be voluntary for states. And with an administration besieged by controversy, a skeptical Congress, and disagreement among even school choice supporters, it faces an uphill battle.

That did not deter DeVos in her speech at the annual American Federation for Children conference in downtown Indianapolis.

“The president is proposing the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history,” she said, soon after being greeted by a standing ovation from school choice supporters. “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

School choice comes in many forms, but DeVos and the American Federation for Children have long advocated for vouchers and tax credit programs that provide public money to families in order to pay private school tuition. While proponents argue these initiatives provide a lifeline to low-income students, critics say they drain resources from public schools and are ineffective at improving student achievement.

Indeed, DeVos was met with protests from several dozen teachers and public education advocates who criticized her plan before it had even been released. Voucher programs “rob a majority of the students — we’ve got more than 90 percent of the kids in this country sitting in public schools,” Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith told Chalkbeat after a rally held before DeVos’s speech.

Even certain school choice supporters are critical of a federal proposal.

“School choice would not only risk being branded as TrumpChoice, but it would be fronted by an unpopular and divisive president,” wrote Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Democrats who are open to school choice but who despise Trump might wonder if they’re missing something when it comes to school choice.”

One prominent school choice supporter, Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, has already backed the proposal. Still, few seem to expect it to become law. In 2015, a bid to give states the option to use federal money to fund private school tuition was easily voted down in the Senate.

In her speech, DeVos emphasized that the administration’s proposal would devolve power to the states, thought it’s unclear how she would accomplish this seemingly paradoxical goal through a federal program.

“We shouldn’t view this as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits all school choice proposal,” she said. “We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money.”

The last line was perhaps an allusion to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, though she didn’t specify how the Trump administration’s plan would work differently.

Insofar as states will have a choice about school choice, DeVos is clear which direction she thinks they should go.

“Let me be very clear, I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education,” DeVos said. “But those are decisions states must make — no two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same, and that’s a good thing.”

The secretary offered a bevy of options that epitomize the “open system” of choices that families should have access to: “It shouldn’t matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools – or in an educational setting yet to be developed.”

Earlier in the evening, Indiana’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb appeared, and former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference on Tuesday. Although New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke to the group in previous years, no current elected Democrat appears on this year’s agenda.

DeVos seemed keenly aware of the increasingly partisan breakdown on school choice issues, particularly on school vouchers.

“The oldest school choice program in the country was started by the Democrat,” she said, referring to Milwaukee’s long-running school voucher system. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this: education should not be a partisan issue.”

Currently about 450,000 students use a voucher or tax-credit funded scholarship to attend a private school.

Recent research in Indianapolis, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. has shown students receiving a voucher saw their test scores drop. There is little research on tax credit programs, partially because many don’t require participating students to take their state test or any test at all.

Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and under-serving those students. Existing voucher programs also allow private schools discriminate against LGBT students.

Proponents point to evidence that public schools improve in response to competition from vouchers, as well as older studies showing that some students attending a private school are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

When Chalkbeat asked Secretary DeVos, as she was leaving through a side entrance, what she thought of recent research on school choice, she responded only, “We’re not taking questions.”

feedback wanted

After seven months, recommendations due from Denver task force on African-American equity issues

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Allen Smith of DPS’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team talks about the formation of the task force at a press conference last year.

After a critical report documented concerns about how African-American educators and students in Denver are treated, Denver Public Schools assembled a task force of more than 100 parents, teachers, community members and district staff to brainstorm ways to respond.

The group, which has been meeting for the past seven months, will reveal its recommendations at a public meeting Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Bruce Randolph School, 3955 Steele Street in Denver. Attendees will have a chance to review and react to the recommendations before they are presented to the Denver school board, which is scheduled to happen next month.

The Denver Public Schools African-American Equity Task Force was formed last fall in the wake of a report commissioned by the district. Summarizing conversations with 70 African-American educators, the report noted black teachers felt isolated and unaccepted, and passed-over for promotions. The educators also reported that black students were being left behind academically and disciplined more harshly than their white peers.

District statistics show black students are suspended at higher rates than white students and earn lower average scores on state English and math tests.

“We have institutional racism,” school board president Anne Rowe said at an October press conference about the formation of the task force. She said that while DPS is committed to equity, “we have a lot to do.”

The task force was comprised of several layers, including six working groups that each tackled an area of concern. For example, one group was charged with examining the causes of disproportionate student discipline and coming up with recommendations for alternatives to suspension. Another group looked at how to better recruit and retain black educators.

Allen Smith, associate chief of the district’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, who led the efforts, noted Monday that the task force has identified “a number of possible next steps.”

“I know the root causes impacting our community are broad, deep and interconnected,” Smith wrote in a statement.

He added that, “We are excited about building trust by sharing the results of this first phase of work and [getting] feedback on how the African-American community’s experiences will be different once we are successful.”