Future of Schools

Indiana poised to pass Wisconsin as national No. 1 for vouchers

Students using vouchers and from charter schools attended a rally for school choice at the Statehouse in February.

This could be the year that Indiana eclipses Wisconsin for the most general education students attending private schools using publicly funded tuition vouchers.

When it launched in 2011, Indiana’s voucher program had the broadest eligibility requirements in the nation and it grew quickly: from about 4,000 the first year to 9,000 the second year and 20,000 the third year. Last year, the program served about 29,100 students using vouchers to attend private schools.

The pro-voucher Institute for Quality Education reported last week that information it obtained from the Indiana Department of Education showed 32,955 students applied to use vouchers this year, which would be a gain of more than 3,800, or about 13 percent.

Final voucher numbers for 2014-15 weren’t released until February but they tracked very closely to the number of students who applied the prior summer. So it’s likely the final number of students using vouchers will be close to 33,000.

Indiana’s voucher program, has grown at lightning speed and fell just short of passing Wisconsin last year as the largest voucher program for general education students in the country. Wisconsin had 29,609 students using vouchers. New numbers for that state aren’t yet available for the current school year.

From the very beginning, the voucher program in Indiana allowed qualifying students anywhere in the state to access tax dollars that had been set aside for their public school educations and use the money to pay private school tuition. Vouchers in Indiana are not restricted to just students who live in cities with  low-scoring school districts or attend schools with poor academic performance, as they are in other places.

The original income limits of the program allowed middle income families who earn up to $62,000 for a family of four to to access vouchers at 50 percent of the amount that poorer families could receive. (Families of four with incomes of $42,000 or less could qualify to spend up to 90 percent of the state aid set aside their public school education on private school tuition.) New laws have since allowed children of parents who initially qualified only to see their incomes grow to keep their vouchers.

Indiana’s rapid growth continued after eligibility rules were widened even more.

An enrollment cap from the first two years was lifted as was a requirement that students must first try out a public school in their neighborhood before they used a scholarship. New rules also allowed siblings, students qualifying for special education services and students who live within the boundary of a failing school to use vouchers.

Vouchers were born in Milwaukee in 1990 and grew slowly for more than two decades. Wisconsin expanded vouchers to other parts of the state in 2013. Ohio also has a large program that has been expanded statewide. Some states, notably Florida, have voucher programs that target particular groups of students, such as disabled children.

Vouchers, billed by the state as “choice scholarships,” are controversial. Proponents say they expand quality options for poor children, and opponents say the state shouldn’t use tax dollars to pay for private, mostly religious, schools while draining the coffers of public schools.

“The continued growth of Indiana’s school voucher program is proof that parents want school choice,” said the institute’s president, Betsy Wiley.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.