National School Choice Week: Start the Celebrations!

National School Choice Week, running today through Friday, is an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the laws and programs that help parents choose the best educational settings for their children. Until recently, Indiana was mostly a spectator to that celebration. Today, we’re the focus of it due to Indiana’s 2011 laws creating our state voucher program and significantly expanding our charter school and virtual education laws.

It’s not that Indiana was void of school choice prior to 2011. We’ve had a charter school law since 2001 and we passed an educational tax credit in 2009. Both were significant accomplishments that the Indiana Chamber was proud to have helped lead. But both also demonstrate the critical importance of implementation and “minor” policy distinctions.

We were the 38th state in the country to pass a charter school law; but there were high hopes when, shortly after passage, our new law was ranked the sixth best in the country. Some of those hopes have been fulfilled, especially with the tremendous successes of charter schools in Indianapolis, but a policy decision by State Superintendent Suellen Reed almost stopped that hope dead in its tracks.

Despite language in the original law stating explicitly that funds for charter school students would follow immediately from their previous schools to the charter schools where they enrolled, Reed determined unilaterally that funds could not flow to charter schools until January of each school year when the school funding formula is reset.

The result was that charter schools in Indiana would be forced to operate for six months without any state funds, a challenge that no other public school in Indiana has ever faced. Ultimately, the issue was partially resolved through the creation of a state-backed, low-interest loan program, but the 2002 decision remains even today as a significant barrier to charter school growth in the state.

The 2009 Scholarship Tax Credit has faced its own tough challenges. One of the main ones is the low level of Indiana’s credit – just 50% of the donor’s contribution. It may sound generous, but in other states, where similar programs have thrived far better than ours, the programs offer 70, 80 and even 100% credits. Indeed, Indiana’s 50% credit is the lowest of any such program in the entire country.

Today, we celebrate a voucher law, passed in 2011, that has produced the largest first-year participation rate of any voucher law in American history. The celebration continues, as this year’s participation doubled that of the first year. Yet, even that success is tempered by some coming challenges.

Among them, Indiana’s law is the only choice law in the country that bans kindergarteners from participating. As some lawmakers have said, they think it’s a good idea to require parents to first give a “test run” to the local public schools – even when the parents know plenty about their options. Indeed, the suggestion of such “test runs” is directly counter to core philosophy of school choice – that parents are best positioned to determine the best educational settings for their children.

So we celebrate this week, and we will revel in the fact that states around the country are now chasing us – trying now to replicate the tremendous successes that we had in 2011. Those successes are well worth celebrating, but much work remains to be done.

In the next three days, this space will feature the thoughts of three Indiana leaders who have helped make choice a reality in Indiana. Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, will help put Indiana’s role in a national perspective; Dan Elsener, president of Marian University, will share why choice has been a lifelong passion of his; and Lindsey Brown, executive director of School Choice Indiana, will report on the state of Indiana’s choice options.

We hope you’ll join us in this national celebration and will revel, as we will, in the newly minted attention that Indiana has earned. But as we’ll note in a closing column on Friday, the challenges that remain are more than just policy oriented; in many ways, they sit at the core of our political and policy environments.

Meanwhile, check out the web site for National School Choice Week and look especially for the celebrations and other events that are occurring throughout Indiana. You might even find a celebration near you!


Derek Redelman is vice president of education and workforce development for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Chalk Up Another Victory for School Vouchers

A rapid expansion of Louisiana’s school voucher program, officially signed into law last week, is the latest in a series of initiatives to expand school choice throughout the country. The Friedman Foundation offers its perspective. Milton Friedman first proposed vouchers in 1955.

Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law today an expansion of Louisiana’s school voucher program, making it one of the largest such programs nationwide.

Vouchers, which allow parents to use government funding for their children’s private school tuition, were first proposed in 1955 by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who believed universally available vouchers were the best way to improve education. In 1990, the first voucher program was created in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, though only for low-income families. Last year, Indiana took historic action by making more than half of its student population voucher-eligible. Now, more than half of all Louisiana students will qualify for vouchers.

“States are realizing that school choice works,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Milton Friedman’s legacy foundation. “The more that states can move from limited school choice to universal availability, the greater its benefits will be to those in need. Indiana is witnessing this now. So, too, will Louisiana.”

In Louisiana, vouchers have been available since 2008, but only to New Orleans children and students with special needs in eligible parishes. In the 2012-13 school year, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program will allow low- and middle-income students statewide to receive vouchers if they are enrolled in public schools graded “C,” “D,” or “F” by Louisiana’s accountability system.

Currently, 18 states, including Louisiana, and Washington, D.C., provide private school choice through vouchers or the tax code. In 2011, called “The Year of School Choice” by voucher supporters, 13 states increased the availability of school choice; eight new programs were created and 11 existing laws were expanded. This year, Florida and Arizona have approved increases to their private school choice programs, while Virginia and New Hampshire—neither of which allow private school choice—have passed scholarship proposals.

Indiana Hits It Big in Year in Review

There’s nothing like a little teaser to whet your appetite for more. Here’s what we included in today’s INside Edge e-newsletter about this blog post:

When a national organization lists the top five events in a particular field for a certain year, it’s quite an accomplishment to gain a mention. It’s even better when you’re cited three times in those five entries, including an individual recognition for overall efforts. Find out who and what we’re talking about.

The answers are Indiana education reforms in 2011 and the accolades come from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University as it ranks the best education events of the past year.

Here’s the full press release, with Indiana’s mentions below:

BEST Education Events of 2011
1. Reinvigoration of school choice via opportunity scholarships and vouchers.
Despite the attractive choice that private schools (especially Catholic schools) offer in many inner cities and notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s resolution of issues of federal constitutionality, private school choice remained largely politically taboo until this year.  In what history may view as a watershed, private school choice moved ahead in many places in 2011, including the District of Columbia, where the scholarship program was resuscitated in Congress by Speaker John Boehner; Indiana, where opportunity scholarships were made available to perhaps half the state’s students; and Ohio, which lifted a too-tight cap on its program for kids exiting low-performing schools.

2. The rollback of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey, Idaho, and (temporarily) Ohio.
Progress in improving education is slowed by union contracts that impede sensible decisions about the hiring, firing, deployment, and compensation of educators.  CBAs also drive up costs.  Moreover, many public sector workers are generously compensated—and enjoy relatively secure jobs—and their gold-plated benefit systems are bankrupting states and school systems.  Voters and courageous state leaders finally put these issues on the table in 2011, and five states made major reforms in the pertinent statutes.  (Ohio’s were undone in a November referendum.) 

5. Indiana’s overall record of education reform.
During 2011, Indiana abolished collective bargaining for teacher benefits and work rules.  It allowed all universities to authorize charter schools and removed its cap on charter schools.  The legislature also enacted a program of opportunity scholarships for low-income students that Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett has correctly described as “the nation’s most expansive.”  Indiana moved school board elections from spring to fall, in effect empowering the broader public to participate in the governance of its school systems.  In sum, Indiana has the best reform record of any state in 2011.

Classroom Competition a Good Thing

Contrary to the rhetoric that education choice proponents are out to harm traditional public schools, one of the clearly stated goals is for additional options to spark improvement in the public system. Whether the competition is public or private, the prospect of losing students should be an incentive to change — and improve.

The Cato Institute looks at Ohio’s EdChoice program and whether it has had that desired effect. The Fordham Institute, active in Ohio as a charter school organizer, reviews the Cato report below. The lengthy report from Cato focuses on data.

Rigorous school-voucher studies abound, with most research measuring the achievement effects of vouchers for students who use them. This study by CATO’s Matthew Carr — the first of its kind to investigate Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program — takes a different tack. It examines whether traditional public schools are spurred to improve in the face of a threat of losing students to private schools—if competition itself “creates incentives for systemic improvements.”

To test this, Carr analyzed fourth- and sixth-grade reading and math achievement data on low-performing EdChoice-eligible schools over three academic years (2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08). The results were mixed. While fourth-grade math and sixth-grade math and reading scores remained the same, Carr found the voucher threat correlated with significant achievement gains in fourth-grade reading (the equivalent of 2,200 extra students reaching proficiency). What’s most significant about this finding is that Carr’s analysis controls for (among other things) the “scarlet letter” effect—i.e., did schools improve not because of the voucher threat but rather because of the stigma associated with receiving a highly publicized poor rating from the state? 

Further, while fourth-grade reading gains were significant, they didn’t come from the “bubble kids” — those just below the proficiency cut-off; rather, students in the lowest and highest performing categories made gains. Though its findings don’t constitute a grand slam for voucher proponents, the report is welcome — especially as EdChoice adds another 15,000 students to its eligible roster. 

Time to Abide by New Rules in Indiana

More than 200 new state laws went into effect today. Unless you like to throw caution to the wind – which is not known as a wise tactic in the face of law enforcement – it’s a good idea to take note of what’s now on your to-do and to-don’t lists. Below are a few examples.

For Companies:

Verifying immigration status of new hire
Virtually all employers will need to confirm through the federal E-Verify database that a new employee is here legally. The penalty for employers failing to comply is loss of tax benefits. The E-verify system itself is free, but in reality employers will have internal administrative costs for running each employee check.

Machinery and equipment deductions
Businesses can now seek greater personal property deduction (abatement) from their local governments. On the table are significant tax deductions on new machinery and equipment purchases.

Union secret ballot election
Aimed at eliminating possible coercion tactics, this law requires all elections regarding employee/union representation to be conducted via a secret ballot.

For Citizens:

Don’t text while driving
This seems like a no-brainer, but apparently nothing really is. Only those using a hands-free, voice-operated smartphone can continue “texting” while actually on the road.

Drug testing before state workforce training
Unemployed Hoosiers who want to take advantage of various training programs offered by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development must be prepared to take a drug test. If you pass, you can sign up for the WorkOne training.

School choice scholarships
Low- and middle-income families unhappy with their child’s education can now apply for scholarships to help pay the cost at a public or private school of their choice. Only students who have spent at least one year in a public elementary or high school are eligible, and the program is first come, first serve (with a limited number of scholarships available).

Common sense liquor store ID requirements
No longer should stores ask to see ID before selling liquor to people who clearly were around before advent of the television. Only those who appear to be under the age of 40 will be required to produce their identification. For me, that means I will now consider it a compliment if I’m carded.

Child support before gambling
If an individual strikes it big at a casino but is also ignoring court-ordered child support obligations, those casino winnings will be withheld and applied to the outstanding support payments. It’s called prioritization.

Looking for something else? All 2011 laws and their summaries can be found in a report prepared by the Indiana Senate Majority.

Brinegar Speaks on School Choice and Charter School Legislation

The state Legislature passed two sweeping education reforms on Wednesday. Indiana Chamber President Kevin Brinegar comments on their significance:

School Choice Scholarships (HB 1003)
"For too long, thousands of Indiana children from low- and middle-income families have been trapped in assigned public schools that too often fail to provide the desired level of education. Now parents will be able to redirect a portion of state dollars assigned to their children’s education to a school that better fits their children’s needs. This will give those students a better chance for success in school and throughout their lives."

Charter Schools (HB 1002)
"We’ve seen some great charter school successes like Signature School in Evansville and the Challenge Foundation Academy in Indianapolis. By strengthening the charter school law to create more accountability for the authorization process and performance review, the number of quality options for parents and their children will increase. The law also permits under-used public school facilities to be utilized by charter schools, which is a win for taxpayers and prospective students."

Charter Schools Bill Amended & Approved

The following is an update on HB 1002, regarding charter schools:

Authors: Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis), Rep. Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis), Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan (D-Indianapolis) and Rep. Cindy Noe (R-Indianapolis)
Sponsor: Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn)

Summary: Allows private universities to serve as charter school authorizers.  Creates the Indiana Charter School Board to serve as a statewide authorizer. (Continues authorizing authority for state universities and the Indianapolis mayor.) Makes unused and underutilized public school facilities available for charter school use. Eliminates limits on charter schools approved by the Indianapolis mayor and on virtual charter schools. Increases funding for virtual charter schools from 80% of average state tuition support to 85%. Cancels interest payments on loans from the state that charter schools have acquired as the result of delayed tuition payments. Makes additional changes. 

Chamber Position: Support
Status: The Senate Appropriations Committee made additional changes this week that would increase funding for virtual charter schools to 85% of the state average rather than 90%, as proposed originally. Additional amendments were made to adjust how charter schools receive first semester funds (an ongoing concern that has caused charter schools to incur substantial operating loans) and to improve accountability for charter schools. The committee approved the amended bill on an 8-2 vote, with Sen. Earline Rogers (D-Gary) and Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Portage) joining Republicans in support of the bill; it is now eligible for consideration by the full Senate. 

Update/Chamber Action:  The Indiana Chamber continued to work much of this week in helping to develop an accountability component for charter school authorizers that would raise performance expectations without putting charter schools at risk of future political swings. We believe that the amendment adopted this week accomplishes that balance. As the bill continues to progress, we join Speaker Bosma, the author of this bill, in wanting to see the triggers for conversion charter schools improved. Those triggers, we believe, should focus on some super-majority of parents in the school, rather than a focus on teachers who often do not live in the school boundaries, do not send children to the school and do not pay taxes in the district. We also note some continuing frustration with a small minority of legislators who remain unwilling to acknowledge that charter schools are public schools and who continue to portray these schools as siphoning funds from "real" public schools.  Nonetheless, we continue to be pleased that this substantial bill is progressing and will continue to work with legislative leaders, the Indiana Department of Education and other charter school supporters to continue improving and advancing the bill. 

Now is the Time for School Choice

The School Scholarship Program is designed to provide real school choice opportunities for thousands of low-and middle-income families. Shouldn’t Indiana parents have more choices to access the quality schools they want for their children?

Please contact your state legislators today to urge them to "support the School Scholarship Program to provide more school choices for Indiana families." 

Today, tens of thousands of Indiana families have few or no choices in finding schools that meet their children’s needs. They feel trapped in assigned schools that all to often are failing to provide a quality education. In fact, nearly 25,000 children in this state are trapped in chronically failing schools.

The School Scholarship Program would allow thousands of low-and middle-income families to access a portion of the per-pupil funding spent on their children in their assigned public schools and use those funds to pay tuition at the public or private schools of their choice.

For the first time, families could choose their own schools and have per-pupil funding follow them.  The program would introduce real competition and empower parents to choose the best school settings, public or private, for their children.

The School Scholarship Program is strongly supported by Gov. Daniels, Supt. of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett and legislative leaders. However, the plan is currently on hold due to the Democrat walkout in the House.

Enough is Enough! Get Back to Work, Folks

It’s time for the rhetoric and political theater to stop. It’s time for members of the Indiana House to return to work and do the job – helping to govern our state – they were elected to do.

Over 250 pieces of legislation have come to a standstill because of the House Democrats’ walkout. Important proposals to grow our state’s economy, to create jobs, to keep the state fiscally sound – and to even pass a budget – are all in jeopardy.

The legislative proposals that led to the House shutdown:

  • Education reforms to improve teacher evaluations, introduce performance pay, limit collective bargaining to wages and benefits, and increase accountability. These should not be partisan issues at all.  In fact, President Obama and leading groups like Democrats for Education Reform actually support these efforts.
  • Funding schools based on a per-pupil formula, not guaranteed funding levels at shrinking school districts.
  • School choice vouchers and expanded public charter school options, so Hoosier families can have more access to quality schools for their kids.
  • Protecting the rights of workers to secret ballot votes in union elections, a core democratic principle.
  • Open and fair competition for public construction projects. Just as public projects shouldn’t be forced to be non-union, they shouldn’t be forced to be "union only."
  • Right-to-work (which is now off the table this year), even though it’s the single most effective step Indiana could take to attract jobs and 70% of Hoosiers support it.
  • In other words, the House has been brought to a standstill to protect the status quo in K-12 education and to preserve special privileges and powers of organized labor. It’s as simple as that.

These are important issues and good and honorable people can disagree about them. However, the democratic process cannot work if elected officials refuse to participate in the process. 

Call to action: Please take a moment to contact state representatives to tell them it is time to end this destructive walkout and get back to work. You can send a quick e-mail via our online grassroots system or call (800) 382-9842.

School Choice Voucher Bill in House

Legislation to create the state’s first school choice "voucher" program for low and middle-income families is before the Indiana House.  Please share this message with your employees and colleagues.

House Bill 1003 would create the Choice Scholarship Program to allow lower-income families to take a portion of the per-pupil funding being spent on their child in their assigned public school and use it to pay tuition and fees at the public or private school of their choice.

The proposal is part of the K-12 education reform package being advocated by legislative leaders, Gov. Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett. Thousands of Indiana students, for the first time, could choose their own schools and have per-pupil funding follow them.

The plan is under assault from teacher unions and much of the public school establishment because it would introduce real competition and empower parents to choose the best school setting, public or private, for their children.

If you support providing parents with more school choices, your state legislator needs to hear from you today!  Please contact your state legislator today to urge passage of HB 1003.