Early Education

Kenley: Costs may scuttle most of Pence's 2014 education agenda

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Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Luke Kenley

Luke Kenley, the powerful chairman of the Indiana Senate’s appropriations committee, said Wednesday he doubts potentially costly proposals from Gov. Mike Pence to offer preschool tuition vouchers to low income families, boost charter schools or aid teacher innovation can be enacted before 2015.

“I don’t see us doing anything in 2014 on these issues,” Kenley, R-Indianapolis, said in an interview. “If you want to have a fair sense of fiscal discipline and evaluate any program, it has to be done in the context of the rest of the budget.”

Kenley said all education priorities — not just Pence’s proposals but also annual costs like aid to school districts — should be weighed against each other at the same time and compared to the available revenue. Then choices could be made about what matters most when everything could be judged equally.

The time for that is the next budget year, 2015, unless Pence wants to also propose a way to fund his education plans, Kenley said.

“We can’t start down the path of funding special projects unless someone wants to come up with a tax or a special revenue source,” he said.

At a speech in Corydon Tuesday, Pence called for preschool vouchers for 40,000 low income children, a salary stipend for teachers who change jobs to work in troubled schools, grants for teacher innovation and state-paid reimbursement to teachers for classroom supplies.

Pence does not want to wait, especially on prekindergarten programs, according to a spokeswoman.

“Governor Pence and his staff are continuing the important conversation that started in the last legislative session regarding the design of a pre-K strategy that will serve the most vulnerable Hoosier students, and we want to get those programs started as soon as possible,” Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said.  “Authorizing pre-K in the coming session will allow enough lead time for programs to be in place for the 2015-2016 school year.”

In Tuesday’s speech, Pence also endorsed an expansion of drop out recovery charter schools, a controversial issue that Kenley spearheaded an effort to address earlier this year. Charter schools for dropouts, often adults, run by Goodwill Industries and Christel House Academies have earned accolades for helping students finish school and get jobs but plans for a big expansion of the schools around the state worried lawmakers.

As an interim solution, Kenley and other lawmakers engineered a set aside of cash for the existing schools but also capped their growth until there was further study of how to pay for them.

With an expansion of dropout recovery schools added to his other education proposals, potential new costs to the state for Pence’s total education agenda could easily exceed $100 million if his ideas were all enacted. Because Indiana’s biennial budget is forged by the legislature in odd-numbered years, new programs created in even-year “short” sessions may have to wait a year for implementation until funding is allocated in the next budget.

The Senate has been a stumbling block over the fiscal impact of education bills in the past, notably earlier this year when a preschool pilot program, backed by the House, was redesigned and scaled down. Indiana’s most recent tax collections also came in under projections, prompting Pence to order the state plane sold and instituting cuts in higher education and raising questions about the viability of new spending programs.

Pence acknowledged Tuesday that his education agenda was a starting point for talks with the legislature, but emphasized the state was fiscally strong overall and he believed creative solutions could be found to put programs in place in 2014. He also told reporters afterwards he had personally briefed Kenley on his education plans.

Kenley said when he and the governor spoke, they agreed more often about education than not.

“We had a good conversation,” he said. “I agreed with him these are all worthwhile things to take a look at. I think he’s trying to think real hard about what the next steps are in education.”

 

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

In fact, EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

Early education

Colorado gets good marks on preschool access for 3-year-olds, not so much on funding

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Preschoolers play dress-up on a recent morning at Fairview Elementary in the Westminster school district.

While Colorado ranks near the back of the pack for state preschool funding, it gets relatively high marks for providing preschool access to the state’s 3-year-olds, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Colorado ranked 11th for 3-year-old access among 33 states offering preschool to 3-year-olds. The state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, which is for children with certain risk factors, served about 5,400 3-year-olds and about 15,700 4-year-olds last year.

PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows the percentage of Colorado children served by state-funded preschool over time.
PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows how Colorado’s per-pupil preschool funding has changed over time.

Colorado ranked 24th of 44 states for 4-year-old preschool access in the state-by-state report, slightly worse than last year. Seven states, including Colorado’s neighbors, Wyoming and Utah, don’t fund preschool at all.

Besides gauging preschool funding and access, the new report revealed that Colorado meets five of 10 benchmarks designed to judge preschool quality. Last year, the state met six of the benchmarks, but several benchmarks changed this year in what the research institute described as an effort to raise the bar.

State officials said that observers should take Colorado’s middling benchmark score with a grain of salt because while the state didn’t get credit for having certain standards enshrined in state policy, the standards are widely practiced by school districts that participate in the Colorado Preschool Program. One example is the benchmark that calls for vision, hearing and health screenings of preschoolers — Colorado didn’t check that box, but most districts conduct the screenings.

Two other benchmarks that Colorado doesn’t meet include a requirement for lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and assistant teachers to have a Child Development Associate credential.

Cathrine Floyd, program director for the Colorado Preschool Program and Results Matter Program at the Colorado Department of Education, said the degrees are highly encouraged by the state but not required. That’s because some state-funded preschool slots are offered at community-based preschools that would not be able to afford to pay teachers if they all had higher-level degrees, she said.

Among the five benchmarks Colorado meets on the revised list are two related to class size and staff-student ratio, one related to teacher training, one related to state early learning standards and one related to preschool curriculum.

Floyd and her colleagues described the annual report from the well-regarded National Institute for Early Education Research as a good starting point for conversation, but said the state’s annual Colorado Preschool Program report provides more detail and context about Colorado’s progress.