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  • Associated Press/Photo by Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News

    ID: A student shows her identification badge at a San Antonio school.
    Associated Press/Photo by Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News

  • Associated Press/Photo by Carlos Osorio

    Rick Snyder
    Associated Press/Photo by Carlos Osorio

Education

Vouchers vetoed

Louisiana court slaps down state's school choice plan, sending students back to failing schools

John Lacey’s children are two of the 4,944 unsure if they can remain in their private schools now that a judge has ruled Louisiana tax collections cannot pay their tuition. Lacey, a single dad, is outraged: “You’re going to tell me I have to leave my child in a failing school system?” 

In April 2012, Louisiana legislators expanded a New Orleans voucher program statewide. Students zoned into public schools the state rates C, D, or F could take their public education funds to state-reviewed private schools. This amounted to 380,000 children because Louisiana schools rank in the bottom five nationally on nearly every measure, such as dropout rates and reading achievement.

While legal battles often hinge on whether vouchers unconstitutionally fund religious institutions, the Louisiana case concerns how the state funds them. It currently runs the money through the same account that pays for public schools. District Judge Timothy Kelley said that is unconstitutional.  

When his children attended public schools, Lacey said, teachers told him they had too many students to help his children through their academic struggles. He prefers Life Christian Academy for its small class sizes and moral education. Lacey can’t afford private school tuition, and thinks his tax dollars should go to a school he chooses.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court to keep the kids in their chosen schools while it hears his appeal of the Nov. 30 decision. Lacey says his kids are staying put for now: “I’m going to make sure they get a proper education. That’s what I’ve got out of the Christian school versus the public school system.”

Here's looking at you, kids

Two San Antonio high schools now require their 4,000 students to wear ID badges containing radio frequency identification chips that transmit 24/7. A major reason: The badges show when students cut class. Attendance on the day of enrollment determines state funding for the year, and reducing absences on that day could increase school coffers by $2 million.

Student Andrea Hernandez refused, with privacy rights a major reason. She had applied to attend her school, a science and engineering magnet school that admits only those students who have good grades and attendance records, and write a convincing essay. The school threatened expulsion. She sued, and a district court judge ruled in November that the school could not expel her until her lawsuit is decided. —J.P.

Limited choice

Michigan K-12 students could become free agents, able to attend any in-state public school that will enroll them, and even to take different classes at different schools. That’s what Gov. Rick Snyder wants, but the idea alarms State Board of Education President John Austin: “This is a voucher system,” he told the Detroit Free Press. Austin says it’s a mistake for educators to tell parents, “Here’s the money. Make your own choices.”

Snyder’s proposal is limited, but the limitation is one more result of the mistake late-19th-century Protestants made when they controlled public schools, wanted Catholics to attend them, and passed laws forbidding any tax dollars from going to religious schools (see WORLD, Aug. 24, 2002). Michigan’s constitution forbids taxes from funding “nonpublic” schools: It’s the most restrictive of the 38 states with similar amendments. Snyder’s plan is not a voucher plan since students would not be able to attend private schools using state money, but it would give families choice among public schools. Families who currently attempt that can be prosecuted. 

Snyder’s proposal would also give early high-school graduates up to $10,000 for college, expand online learning possibilities, and reduce money to schools that do not improve student test scores. —J.P.

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Brad Barket/PictureGroup/AP

Kaya Henderson (Brad Barket/PictureGroup/AP)

  • Associated Press/Photo by Benjamin Brink/ The Oregonian

    Jenny Takeda
    Associated Press/Photo by Benjamin Brink/ The Oregonian

Education

School's out

Two major cities battle over saving their school systems by closing schools

Chicago and Washington, D.C., officials are attempting to prepare parents and teachers for school closings. Both have lost thousands of students in the past decade, a national trend for urban districts: Chicago is down about 6 percent (25,270 students) and the District of Columbia 35 percent (27,681 students). 

Unions are fighting school closings, even when districts face astonishing budget deficits: “If you close our schools, there will be no peace in the city,” promised Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey.

Closures will also be difficult in Washington: After she closed 23 mostly low-performing schools, voters ousted former Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s boss for a union-backed mayor. But new Chancellor Kaya Henderson insists the capital wastes money on half-empty schools. In a hearing, city council members objected to closing schools in their wards but agreed closure savings should go toward improving academics. 

Both cities desperately need that. Half of Chicago and 40 percent of D.C. students drop out. Four in five fourth-graders in both districts can barely read, and students have flocked to charter schools—but school districts rarely let charters use their buildings.

Musical chairs

After a half day of math training, Beaverton, Ore., high-school history teacher Jessica Keskitalo is teaching seventh-grade math this year. She is one of 365 teachers shifted by seniority to fill in for laid-off teachers cut by the Beaverton district. 

Oregon requires districts to lay off teachers with the least experience first, instead of assessing expertise and classroom needs. Beaverton has moved teachers from social studies to science, singing to math, French to science, and so on.

Beaverton estimates that it placed about 160 teachers in “significantly different positions.” Keskitalo, 35, has never taught math, and has taught middle school during only one month of student teaching. Teachers and principals had no say over the transfers. 

Beaverton transferred district librarian Jenny Takeda into a third-grade classroom one week before the Oregon Association of School Libraries named her Librarian of the Year. She chose to substitute teach while rethinking her career. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, “the overwhelming majority of school districts use seniority as the only determinant of teacher layoff decisions.” —J.P.

Fox in the henhouse

An opponent of school vouchers and public charter schools will now manage Indiana’s expanding portfolio of both. Last month Indiana voters kicked out nationally recognized school reformer Tony Bennett and put in his place, as Indiana’s state superintendent of education, union official Glenda Ritz.

In the past two years, Indiana has instituted the biggest statewide voucher program, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, and new grade-by-grade tests and curriculum requirements shared by 46 states.

Although Ritz can’t change the laws, she can change how the state implements them. Indiana’s school grades, for example, depend partly on student test scores—but Ritz dislikes evaluating schools. Outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels, though, noted that Ritz will report to a “pro-reform” board of education that Daniels appointed.

Bennett lost, some say, because Ritz’s union targeted Bennett with cheap, effective Facebook and Twitter posts. Others blame Bennett’s aggressive style, perfected as a high-school basketball coach. Tea Party activists opposed Bennett’s unwavering support of the Common Core—K-12 standards and tests that nearly every state has adopted since the Obama administration required them in return for federal grants and legal waivers. —J.P. 

—Joy Pullmann is the editor of School Reform News

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