Tag Archives: performance

The Continuing Attack on Public Education

And Indiana’s legislative session continues…..

In the Fort Wayne Journel-Gazette, Vic Smith has accused the Indiana legislature of a frontal assault on public education.

Two bills have been filed that would create the biggest expansion of private school vouchers Indiana has ever seen. They would advance the privatization of our educational system in line with the plans of voucher-inventor Milton Friedman, who supported the abolishment of public education.

I didn’t think that the Republican supermajority would make a direct attack on public education in an election year, but it appears the Republican leadership is poised to push forward a radical new private school voucher plan. It would be the biggest voucher expansion since Gov. Mike Pence’s voucher plan costing taxpayers $40 million in new dollars and diverting $120 million from public schools was enacted in 2013.

Smith asserts that these measures are part of a longer and more ambitious effort to replace public schools with a “marketplace” of private schools funded by government, but without government oversight. He points out that although 94% of Indiana’s children still attend public schools, those public schools are being systematically starved of resources that are being redirected to private schools.

Smith sees this assault as intentional, but let’s give voucher proponents the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they genuinely believe that privatized schools will offer better educational results. (Put aside, for the moment, important questions about what we believe constitutes a good education, and how we measure that.)

To date, research has provided no evidence that vouchers improve anything other than parental satisfaction and the bottom lines of struggling parochial schools.

A recent study of Louisiana voucher schools by the Brookings Institution found student achievement actually declined, and fairly substantially.

When comparing school performance, researchers struggle to distinguish differences in schools’ effectiveness from variation in the types of students who choose those schools.

A voucher lottery provides an unusual opportunity to measure the effectiveness of private schools. The lottery serves as a randomized trial, which is the gold standard of research methods. Random selection means that lottery winners and losers are identical, on average, when they apply for the voucher. Any differences that emerge after the lottery can therefore be attributed to the private-school attendance of the winners.

The results were startling. The researchers, a team of economists from Berkeley, Duke, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the scores of the lottery winners dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of the lottery losers. The effects were very large: roughly a quarter of a standard deviation in math, social studies, and science. There were no effects on reading scores.

In previous posts, I have argued that the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, can be attributed in large part to people who did not understand the government they were elected to manage, and who substituted ideology for competence. The voucher movement displays the same hubris.

In both cases, children are the victims.

We Don’t Care What the Evidence Says….

The Indiana General Assembly is finally going home, concluding a session which most sane Hoosiers couldn’t wait to see come to an end. There was plenty of bad policy to go around (RFRA, anyone?) but–as has become typical during the Pence Administration– city schools took the greatest hit. The final budget slashed funding for urban public schools in districts serving the poorest populations, while raising amounts for rural, charter and voucher schools.

Once again, the legislature took money from the state’s most strapped public schools to increase funding for Pence’s ill-considered voucher program–currently one of the most extensive in the nation. Indiana has close to 30,000 students receiving public funds to attend private schools, some 80% of which are religious.

To add insult to injury, lawmakers also took oversight of voucher schools away from Superintendent Glenda Ritz, and moved it to the Governor’s office. According to the Indianapolis Star

A proposal was slipped in the state’s new $31.5 billion budget without public debate, moving calculation of school voucher costs from Ritz’s Department of Education to Pence’s board and shifts control over which schools qualify to receive vouchers.

If anyone thinks Pence’s office is competent to do either job, I have a bridge to sell you…

Whatever one thinks of charter schools, at least they remain part of the public system. Vouchers are another thing altogether. There are plenty of reasons to object to the growth of the state’s voucher program–vouchers bleed money from the public schools, have been shown to re-segregate students, and give parents choices without providing them with the information they need in order to inform those choices. (In Louisiana, a significant percentage teach creationism and other “biblical truths.”) Most also fail to deliver.

Proponents defend vouchers as a means of escape from “failing” public schools; the obvious implication/promise is that students will receive a better education in the private schools to which they take those vouchers.

The evidence does not support that promise.

According to a report from the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago, school choice in Indiana is “designed to funnel taxpayer money to private schools, with little evidence that demonstrates improved academic achievement for students who are most at risk.” The study compared Indiana’s program with those in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. – some of the oldest voucher programs in the country – where they say they found similar results.

The study replicates several others that have been conducted since “school choice” programs became the easy answer to struggling schools.

Virtually all scholars who have examined the performance of voucher schools have concluded that academic gains range from none to minimal. The single improvement that has been documented is parental satisfaction; when parents feel they have had a choice, they are more empowered and exhibit more positive attitudes.

Hoosier taxpayers are paying a lot for that parental satisfaction.

The vast majority of Hoosier children, who remain in public schools being purposely drained of necessary resources in order to support private (mostly religious) education, are paying a lot more.

Not According to Plan…

A colleague informs me that the military has a saying: Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.

Well, batten down the hatches. If you think Indianapolis government hasn’t been performing very well lately, we’re about to see how bad it can get. Not that we’ll see piss-poor results immediately– we won’t. And that’s part of the problem.

The City of Indianapolis has just fired more than half of its planning staff–a staff that was already a bare-bones remnant of what it has been in the past. (And let’s be honest, even in its most robust past it was barely adequate.)

Most citizens don’t see the need for planning. They understand the need for public safety, they appreciate garbage collection and street paving. They know they need sewers.  Planning, on the other hand, seems vaguely bureaucratic and arcane.

Modern urban planning began in the early decades of the 20th Century; it was a response to appalling sanitary, social and economic conditions in the rapidly-growing industrial cities of the time. Today, it can be described as a technical and political process that uses extensive public input to guide land use, transportation, urban design and protect the environment.

Planning is what allows us to use our ever-more-limited public resources efficiently to achieve goals that the public has identified as important.

Knowing where growth is occurring tells us where to put new roads. Planning and zoning decisions protect the value of property (you aren’t likely to spend money improving your home if a gas station can be built next door). Planning projections allow us to avoid unnecessary congestion, provide urban amenities like parks where those are most needed, focus renewal efforts on deteriorating neighborhoods, and deploy public safety officers strategically. Planning allows us to ameliorate or avoid things like urban asthma and lead poisoning, ensure that water supplies will continue to be adequate….in short, it helps us  ensure that our physical and social infrastructure is serving us properly.

Planning allows city administrators to base the decisions they have to make every day on data rather than hunches.  And the public availability of that data allows citizens to hold their government accountable for those decisions–to ensure that they are based on relevant criteria rather than on cronyism or responsiveness to special interests. 

The thing is, planners aren’t “front and center.” They work behind the scenes, and their concerns tend to be long-term. So an administration that wants to save money can get rid of planners, knowing that the negative effects won’t be obvious until he or she is safely out of office.

Next time you drive around Castleton Square–if you are hardy enough, or just unlucky enough to have to do so–consider it the face of the future.


A Low Bar

Mitch Daniels will be leaving the Governor’s office next week, and the predictable “puff pieces” are popping up. Daniels will leave with a reputation for good stewardship, primarily because Indiana emerged from the recession in decent fiscal shape–at least if you gauge fiscal health by money in the state’s bank accounts rather than by the condition of its cities, towns and workforce. (By that measure, we don’t look so good…)

Which leads to a question none of these adulatory articles has bothered to address: how should we measure a Governor’s performance? What are the criteria for success as a state’s chief executive?

In Daniels’ case, those applauding his performance seem to set the bar pretty low. Yesterday, Matt Tully’s column celebrated the fact that Daniels actually made decisions. Granted, Tully has long exhibited what local political wags call  a “man crush” on the Governor, but he is not alone in suggesting that the mere fact that someone we elected actually did stuff is reason enough for praise.

So what “stuff” did Mitch do? Let me use Tully’s list: He leased the Indiana Toll Road. He led the fight for “Right to Work,” and was successful in adding property tax caps to the State Constitution. He was the moving force behind Tony Bennett’s approach to education reform. He revamped the BMV, and finally got Indiana on Daylight Savings Time.

Fair is fair: the BMV is a far, far better agency than it ever was before. It is efficient, user-friendly–I’d certainly give Daniels kudos for solving agency problems that defied his predecessors. I will also give him credit for Daylight Savings Time; it seems ridiculous that getting Indiana to go along with the rest of the country took so much political capital, but hey–this is Indiana, where one of our brilliant legislators worried aloud that an extra hour of sunlight would burn the crops. So props to the Guv for that one, too.

The rest of it, not so much.

The Toll Road deal was part and parcel of the conservative love-affair with privatization; it amounted to what one expert recently called an “intergenerational transfer,” meaning the state deferred expenses that will be paid by our grandchildren in return for quick and easy up-front cash that could be spent during Daniels’ term in office. (And spent it was–it’s all gone.)

Right to work was a payoff to the business interests that supported his campaigns.

The tax caps are strangling every urban area in Indiana–making it virtually impossible for Mayors to fund ongoing services, and forcing them into “rob Peter to pay Paul” deals to sell off public assets. Indianapolis is less safe, less clean, and less healthy; thanks, Mitch.

Whatever the merits of the education policies that Daniels and Bennett championed, it is hard to find anyone–education reform advocate or defender of the status quo–who has a kind word for their aggressive, slash-and-burn attacks on teachers.

I haven’t read all of the fawning articles, but the ones I’ve seen haven’t mentioned some of the other legacies Governor Daniels is leaving. There’s a state contract with a horribly expensive coal gasification plant in Southern Indiana, run by a company that employs Daniels’ close ally Mark Lubbers–a contract that ensures Indiana ratepayers will overpay for gas for the next 30 years. There’s the developing scandal involving the IEDC and Mitch Roob, another Daniels protege.

Tully and others acknowledge that there is “debate” about the consequences of many of his decisions, but they praise Daniels for the fact that he actually did stuff, that he “boldly” made decisions. That he changed things.

Apparently, that’s enough to earn their praise.

Talk about setting the bar low.