Analysis

The first major study of Indiana’s voucher program might not change much for the state’s strong pro-school choice legislature

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

The results of the first study of Indiana’s voucher program are in, but while interest in school choice research is growing across the country, it’s not clear the study will actually affect what’s happening in Indiana.

Republican leaders in the legislature spearheaded the program back in 2011, and since then, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize private school tuition — all without much hard evidence that vouchers lead to Indiana students doing better in school. That’s at odds with how the Indiana General Assembly has handled a much smaller investment in preschool for poor children, requiring a state-sponsored study as soon as the program began.

Read: Lawmakers want more research before they spend big on preschool. When it comes to vouchers, there’s no such hesitation

And although lawmakers haven’t made significant steps to expand the voucher program since income limits were loosened in 2013, they’ve continued to fund it at high levels and make small tweaks along the way.

The University of Notre Dame voucher study results themselves are middling: Students showed initial declines in math, with improvement later on. Test scores in English improved by a marginal amount over four years, a change the researchers deemed not “statistically meaningful.”

Joel Hand, a lobbyist for the Indiana Coalition of Public Education and longtime voucher critic, said he’s not surprised. Once held up as a way for kids to escape failing schools, voucher rhetoric nowadays has shed that aspect to focus squarely on the value of parental choice.

“The proponents of the voucher program told everyone that this was about making academic progress for one, and saving the state money,” Hand said. “Now here were are in 2017, six years later, and we see it has not saved money, it has cost the state millions of dollars,” and we see that academic progress has not been made.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who authored the original voucher bill, didn’t have a strong answer for whether the study would change how he and fellow lawmakers have pushed voucher policy. It seems like the results do little more than affirm what GOP lawmakers already believe to be true.

“Overall I think it’s positive for the voucher program in Indiana,” said Behning, who is chairman of the House Education Committee. “I don’t know how anybody, if you read the data, wouldn’t think it’s somewhat affirming that the longer you’re in the system the better you’re performing …  I’m sure there will be discussions on it on both sides.”

Early on, Indiana education officials abandoned an opportunity to work with researchers from Indiana University and study how vouchers affect students. The effort wasn’t picked back up when then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett left office.

Voucher growth might be slowing in the state, but politically, Indiana is still primed to continue as a stronghold for choice-based reform.

Republicans winning an overwhelming majority of seats in the House in 2012 was a boon to school choice advocates, as many of the new proposals put forward can now essentially move ahead unimpeded by lawmakers who do not support vouchers. Today, the GOP still retains that level of control of the House and Senate, as well as a Republican governor.

Little by little, the program has widened.

Indeed, in 2016, lawmakers passed a measure that would allow students to use a voucher if they started school during the second semester, instead of just the first. And this year, lawmakers passed measures that would allow kids to take classes outside public school one at a time, including with private providers.

Read: A new test, $22 million for preschool and 5 other major education bills that lawmakers approved in 2017

Lawmakers this year also loosened regulations on how long private schools must wait for vouchers as they pursue state accreditation, and they gave private schools the chance to appeal D or F grades with the Indiana State Board of Education so they could continue accepting new voucher students.

Controversial voucher language was also added to the preschool expansion bill passed this spring, offering another pathway to state dollars in kindergarten if a family participates in the state pilot program for preschool.

The absence of a definitive voucher study hasn’t halted moves to expand Indiana’s existing voucher program. But it’s not clear how much farther Indiana can wade into the school choice waters unless it seriously re-examines its existing programs — more radical voucher-like programs such as education savings accounts have been been introduced, but so far have failed to move forward.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, a key player in getting the law passed in 2011, said earlier this year that he’s uncertain about what an ESA could provide to a state that already has a “strong” choice program.

“Even advocates of ESAs have privately told me we’re not exactly sure, so I need to hear more to be convinced that it is the right choice for Indiana,” Bosma said. “If we didn’t have these other school choice measures targeting families already, there’s no doubt it would have a large benefit … I’m uncertain that ESAs add a very strong element that doesn’t already exist.”

At the end of the day, Indiana voucher supporters in the state legislature have the political will and means to expand the program as they see fit — and research doesn’t seem to factor much into the equation.

Chalkbeat reporter Hafsa Razi contributed to this report.

 

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.