Category Archives: Education / Youth

You Go, Dan Forestal!

A recent report in the Indianapolis Star just warmed the cockles of my heart. (And before you ask, no, I have no idea what “cockles” are.)

Here’s what made me smile:

With the Indiana General Assembly back in session, one state lawmaker says he still intends to introduce legislation that would block public dollars from going to private schools that engage in discriminatory hiring practices.

The proposal by Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis, comes in the wake of discrimination charges lobbed at Roncalli High School, a Catholic school overseen by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Forestal said he wants to see strings put on the state’s voucher program, which uses public dollars to offset to cost of tuition at Roncalli and other participating K-12 private schools.

I’ve written before about Indiana’s voucher program, which is by far the largest in the country, and the damage it is inflicting.  The funds supporting the program would otherwise go to Indiana’s chronically under-funded public schools; research confirms that the private schools participating in the voucher program have failed to improve the academic performance of the children attending them (that they would do so was the original justification for the program); and the program is a thinly-veiled constitutional “work-around” that permits tax dollars to flow to religious institutions. (Some 90% of participating private schools are religious.)

The bill that Representative Forestal proposes to introduce addresses another glaring defect of the voucher program: the lack of standards imposed on participating schools.

A colleague and I recently surveyed voucher programs operating around the U.S., in order to see whether any of those programs required participating schools to teach civics. You will probably not be surprised to learn that none did. I’m relatively confident that if we conducted a follow-up survey, we would be equally unable to find programs imposing non-discrimination requirements. Any nondiscrimination requirements, not just those protective of LGBTQ students and faculty.

There is something very disturbing about taking money away from our public schools and sending it to religious schools without attaching any meaningful conditions. Taxpayers may well be funding schools that teach creationism, that refuse to teach evolution, and that discriminate against students and faculty members who violate tenets of their theologies. (In Louisiana, schools participating in that state’s voucher program were found to be doing all of these things.)

Representative Forestal’s intended legislation was prompted by a widely-publicized incident at Roncalli High School (from which Forestal graduated). Roncalli is one of the largest recipients of vouchers in Indiana.

Two guidance counselors at the school have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after they said they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. The Archdiocese has denied these charges.

 Shelly Fitzgerald was suspended from her job in August after her marriage certificate was presented to school administration. Fitzgerald, who has worked at Roncalli for 15 years, has been in a same-sex relationship for 22 years. She and her wife, Victoria, were married four years ago.

Lynn Starkey has been in a civil union with her spouse since 2015 and worked at Roncalli for nearly 40 years.

The school and Archdiocese have said in public statements that employees must support the teachings of the Catholic Church, including marriage being “between a man and a woman.”

Religious exemptions to civil rights laws allow them to impose such rules–when they are spending their own money.

One of the most basic purposes of the Establishment Clause was to prevent tax dollars from supporting religion. That prohibition makes even more sense today. In a diverse country, taxpayers of various faiths and none should not be forced to support beliefs inimical to their own, and definitely should not see their tax dollars sent to institutions that turn around and discriminate against them.

Forestal said it best:“If you choose to discriminate, public dollars should not go to your school.”

Good luck, Representative Forestal!

 

 

 

Telling It Like It Is

What was that line from Jaws? It’s baaaack…

“It” in this case is the Indiana Legislature, which is beginning its “long” session. (I don’t know how other state’s lawmaking bodies work, but in Indiana, which has a two-year budget cycle, the session is longer the year the budget is considered.) When I last looked, over 300 bills had been filed by members of the State Senate, and 150 or so by members of the House. As you might imagine, a number of them won’t see the light of day–and most probably shouldn’t.

For that matter, Hoosiers would be better off if some of the bills that will survive quietly died. But that’s a post for another day…

Indiana’s teachers had hoped this year’s budget would include funding for a much-needed raise. That may still happen, and it clearly should, but several lawmakers have issued opinions to the effect that, yes, teachers should get raises, but the school corporations that employ them should just take the money for those raises from another part of the school budget.

This is totally unreasonable, of course, because most of those “other” funds are needed and/or legally earmarked for a variety of purposes, but Indiana’s legislators rarely allow their lack of understanding of the way things actually work get in the way of their opining.

In an op-ed for the Lafayette Journal and Courier, the Superintendent of the West Lafayette School System, Rocky Killion, responded. He began with the obvious:

This week the House Education Committee, on a partisan vote of 9-3, passed House Bill 1003.  House Bill 1003 affirms increasing teacher salaries but provides no additional funding to public schools to do so.  Instead, the GOP calls on public schools to spend differently…

What they do not seem to understand is that unless more revenue is provided, there will be less money to provide custodial, maintenance, secretarial, health, special education and other support services for students and teachers.

Then he turned the tables–very effectively.

If legislators are serious about increasing teachers’ salaries without increasing school funding, I would suggest the same to them, spend differently on public education.  Here are three ways to increase teacher salaries without increasing school funding:

Killion’s first suggestion was to quit spending over $100 million annually on standardized testing. As he quite correctly points out, standardized testing doesn’t improve student learning; what he doesn’t say–but many education scholars confirm–is that such testing distorts what happens in the classroom, because teachers feel impelled to spend more time on subjects that will be  tested than on subjects (like civics, for example) that won’t.

 A statistically sound approach for measuring student achievement and holding school corporations accountable for student learning is that of measuring student academic growth over time, which standardizing testing does not do.  Reallocate this resource to teacher salaries.

His second recommendation was similar:Quit spending over $10 million on IREAD-3 testing.

Teachers do not need this test to determine whether or not a student is reading at a third-grade level.  The best, most efficient way to find out if a third-grade student is reading at a third-grade level is by asking a third-grade teacher.  Reallocate this resource to teacher salaries.

I unequivocally endorse his third recommendation, which was to quit spending over $70 million on student vouchers, and reallocate those resources to teacher salaries.

Vouchers were Initially justified as a way to allow children to escape “failing” public schools, but 60% of Indiana’s vouchers are used by students who have never attended a public school.

What Killion was too “politically correct” to mention in his op-ed was that researchers have found no improvement in academic achievement by voucher students. (A couple of studies have found a decline, at least in math.) It has become quite clear that Indiana’s voucher program–the largest in the U.S.–is simply a way to take money from public education and give it to the religious schools that constitute over 90% of the schools accepting vouchers.

Voucher programs were a strategy devised to evade the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits tax support of religious institutions. The courts accepted the argument that the money was “really” going to the parents, and not to a parochial school. That it was always a specious argument has become glaringly obvious.

Indiana’s public school teachers ought not continue to be underpaid so that religious schools can suck at the public you-know-what.

 

Revising History? Or Ignorance Of It?

A recent article in the Charleston Post and Courier reported on the results of a poll conducted by Winthrop University. It was pretty disheartening.

The Winthrop University Poll randomly dialed and questioned 969 residents in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between Nov. 10-20 and Nov. 26-Dec. 2. Results have an error margin of plus or minus 3.15 percent.

The poll found that half of residents either agree or strongly agree that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.

Among white evangelicals, three-fourths agreed or strongly agreed with this belief about how the nation was founded.

The immediate question raised by such results is whether these respondents have chosen to ignore what they (presumably) learned in history class  or whether they are simply uninformed. Whatever the answer, the poll results explain a number of things about Southern political culture.

The poll’s director noted that the belief in a Christian founding is central to Christian Nationalism.

“Research has shown that increases in Christian Nationalist beliefs lead to more exclusionary views on immigration and more negative views of multi-culturalism in America,” Huffmon said. “Those who hold these views care more about whether they have a strong leader who will protect their religious and cultural values than whether a leader is individually pious.”

Forgive me if I suggest that the “cultural value” they want to protect is Christian social dominance.

It is virtually impossible to reconcile this belief in a Christian Nation with American history, or with what we know about the origins of America’s constitution–or for that matter, with the plain language of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is one thing for Christian fundamentalists to prefer that the country affirm the superiority of their particular creed; it is another thing entirely to falsify history in order to convince themselves and others that the Founders agreed with them.

If these folks have made a conscious decision to falsify history, that’s reprehensible. But it is far more likely that they are ignorant of history, that they’ve never heard of the Enlightenment, or encountered the (then radical) political philosophy that privileged personal autonomy over religious and political beliefs endorsed and imposed by the state.  The widespread belief in Christian nationhood reflected in the poll results is a stark reminder of Americans’ deficit of civic literacy, and the failure of our schools to teach history and government accurately and adequately.

It’s interesting–and telling– that this particular fantasy about America’s founding is almost exclusively a phenomenon of White Christians who consider themselves the only true Americans.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Charleston, disagreed with claims that the country was intended to be explicitly Christian.

Darby, who also pastors Nichols Chapel AME in Charleston, didn’t mince words in describing Christian nationalists and white evangelical denominations with exclusionary views on immigration and multiculturalism.

“It’s called Christian hypocrisy,” Darby said.

Darby added that the country should not be in favor of one particular religion. Rather, he said politicians and voters should “love God and love others as we would be loved.”

“If the laws reflect that, we’d be one nation under all,” he said. “If you have something that’s exclusively Christian, you’re walking a very slippery, nationalist slope. Everyone in America is not Christian.”

I suspect that White Christian Nationalists are more worried about the threat civic equality poses to their cultural hegemony than they are about America’s spiritual prospects.

Policymakers can’t do much about chosen ignorance, but polls like this should be seen as yet another reason to make civic education a national priority.

Montana Is Right; Indiana Is Wrong

Montana’s Supreme Court recently struck down that state’s version of a school voucher program, ruling that it was unconstitutional under a provision of the state’s constitution.

As Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported,

The Montana Supreme Court delivered a win for church-state separation and public education last week when it struck downthe state’s private school voucher program.

Americans United, joined by other civil-rights organizations, had urged the court through a friend-of-the-court brief to prevent the voucher scheme – called a tuition tax credit program – from funding private, religious education. Our brief explained that the program violated the “no-aid” provision in Montana’s constitution, which protects residents’ religious freedom by ensuring taxpayer money isn’t used for religious purposes – including religious education.

The Montana Supreme Court agreed with us: “We ultimately conclude the Tax Credit Program aids sectarian schools in violation of Article X, Section 6, and that it is unconstitutional in all of its applications,” wrote the court majority.

“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said AU president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

The Indiana Constitution has a provision very similar to Montana’s. What we don’t have is a Supreme Court willing to uphold it.

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, and according to Chalkbeat, 306 of the 313 schools across Indiana that received vouchers this year are religious. When supporters of public education and civil liberties challenged Indiana’s program, citing our state’s constitutional bar on sending tax dollars to religious institutions of any sort, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to address the reality of the program, ruling that the funds were being sent to parents, not schools, and that it was thus the parents who were “choosing” to use them at religious schools. (Among other intellectually dishonest aspects of that analysis, the court conveniently ignored the fact that 90% of Indiana’s private schools are religious, a fact that rather obviously constrains that parental “choice.”)

There are numerous reasons to oppose school vouchers, and I’ve written about several: research rebuts claims that children attending these schools perform better than similar children in public schools; the program diverts money from already under-resourced public education; there is no requirement that voucher schools teach civics or comply with civil rights laws or refrain from discriminating against LGBTQ students or teachers. (Roncalli, anyone?) There is virtually no accountability.

Accountability has been cited as one of several differences between voucher schools and charter schools. Charters are public schools, they must obey the Constitution, and they can be closed if they fail to perform adequately. (The threat of closing does make them accountable, but use of that mechanism is terribly disruptive, and causes significant angst for parents and children who must find another educational venue.)

Now it appears that Charters, too, have discovered an escape from accountability. According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Charters closed for poor performance or financial improprieties can simply reinvent themselves as–you guessed it!–voucher schools.

The article addressed announcement of the closure of Thurgood Marshall School, a Charter.

If Fort Wayne’s charter-school history is any indication, however, the school might not remain closed. When authorizer Ball State University pulled the charters for Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway, the schools simply converted to private voucher schools. About $3.6 million in state loans made to Imagine were forgiven…

The sponsors turned to Horizon Christian Academy, which took over operation of the two schools but seems to have made no improvements. The Broadway school was absorbed into the Wells Street campus school in 2016. Enrollment grew, but not academic achievement. After consecutive state accountability grades of D’s and F’s, the state finally prohibited Horizon from enrolling new voucher students this year, but current students continue to receive taxpayer-supported tuition for the school.

At the very least, lawmakers should prohibit Charter schools closed for non-performance from continuing to rip off taxpayers by converting to Voucher status.

What lawmakers ought to do, of course, is admit what the Montana Supreme Court recognized: sending tax dollars to religious schools violates both the state and federal constitutions–whether those dollars are “laundered” through parents or not.

Indiana’s voucher program was sold as a way to give poor children a better education. In reality, it serves middle and upper-income families by requiring taxpayers to subsidize their children’s religious education. It should be phased out.

 

 

 

YES!

The Parkland students who mobilized in the wake of that school shooting have been a much-needed bright spot in our gridlocked and polarized political discussions about gun violence and the reach of the Second Amendment. But the most wonderful thing about this group of poised and effective youngsters is they aren’t the only ones. A young, determinedly activist generation is emerging, and demanding that we adults get our acts together.

Much of the activism concerns climate change. A 15-year old recently confronted world leaders at a U.N. meeting about climate change, demanding action.

This 15-year-old has got something to say, and on June 29th, the United Nations General Assembly heard him loud and clear.

Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez stood before the representativesand spoke earnestly and boldly (without notes, for the record) about the urgency of climate change, urging them to take action immediately. “What’s at stake right now is the existence of my generation,” he said in his speech. “In the last 20 years of negotiations, almost no agreements have been made on a bonding climate recovery plan,” he said.

Another 15-year old, Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, is also demanding action.

Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg has been protesting for more than a month. Before the country’s parliamentary election on September 9th, she went on strike and sat on the steps of the parliament building, in Stockholm, every day during school hours for three weeks. Since the election, she has returned to school for four days a week; she now spends her Fridays on the steps of parliament. She is demanding that the government undertake a radical response to climate change. She told me that a number of members of parliament have come out to the steps to express support for her position, although every one of them has said that she should really be at school.

And in October, a federal court ruled that a lawsuit brought by American children, asserting that they have a constitutional right to a habitable planet, could proceed.

A lawyer for a group of young Americans suing the federal government over climate change said a judge’s decision Monday to allow the suit to move forward should clear the way for a trial to begin on Oct. 29.

The suit, which was brought by 21 children and young adults, accuses federal officials and oil industry executives of violating their due process rights by knowing for decades that carbon pollution poisons the environment, but doing nothing about it.

 “When the climate science is brought into the courtroom it will result in the judge finding that the government is committing constitutional violations,” said the lawyer for the kids, Phil Gregory.

It isn’t just climate change, however. In a suit that warms the cockles of my old, cold heart, Rhode Island, students are suing to force schools to teach civics.

Aleita Cook, 17, has never taken a class in government, civics or economics. In the two social studies classes she took in her four years at a technical high school in Providence, R.I. — one in American history, the other in world history — she learned mostly about wars, she said.

Left unanswered were many practical questions she had about modern citizenship, from how to vote to “what the point of taxes are.” As for politics, she said, “What is a Democrat, a Republican, an independent? Those things I had to figure out myself.”

Now she and other Rhode Island public school students and parents are filing a federal lawsuit against the state on Thursday, arguing that failing to prepare children for citizenship violates their rights under the United States Constitution.

The student plaintiffs allege that the state has failed to equip its students with the skills to “function productively as civic participants” and has failed to provide them with the information they need if they are to be capable of voting, serving on a jury and simply understanding the nation’s political and economic life.

The state allows local school districts to decide for themselves whether and how to teach civics, and the lawsuit says that leads to big discrepancies. Students in affluent towns often have access to a rich curriculum and a range of extracurricular activities, like debate teams and field trips to the State Legislature, that are beyond the reach of poorer schools.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs hope the case will have implications far beyond Rhode Island, and potentially prompt the Supreme Court to reconsider its 45-year-old ruling that equal access to a quality education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.

I seem to recall a movie titled “The kids are all right.” These kids certainly are; in fact, they’re better than all right. They’re great.

I hope they kick our butts.