Where did all the students go?

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Chalkbeat Indiana reported that enrollment dropped by almost 15,000 students this fall in Indiana public schools. I wrote that the loss to school districts was over 17,000 students. It gets worse. Judging by recent state data, enrollment in local public schools fell by over 24,000 students.

Where did they go? Several thousand moved to online schools, either virtual charter schools or online programs operated by other school districts. Some families apparently opted out of enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten. A majority of the missing students are probably home-schooling.

In terms of state funding, the loss of 24,000 students translates to a loss of nearly $150 million for public schools in the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost as much money as the schools lose to Indiana’s voucher program, which provides tuition funding for students who attend private schools.

All because of COVID-19, which prompted some families to keep their children home from school and others to enroll their kids in online programs rather than send them to school in a pandemic.

Where did I get 24,000? Using Indiana Department of Education data, I noted the difference between the total enrollment reported in fall 2019 and fall 2020. To eliminate the effect of online-only programs, I excluded them from the calculation in both years.

Overall, charter schools increased their enrollment this fall, according to state data. Some new charter schools opened, and others added grade levels. But the big factor was that virtual charter schools, in particular Indiana Connections Academy, grew by about 1,600 students.

Meanwhile, statewide online programs operated by two public school districts, Clarksville and Union School Corp., saw their enrollment grow by about 4,000 students. Most of those students left their local school districts to enroll in the Clarksville and Union online programs.

Another factor is that families probably delayed or skipped enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten, which is not required in Indiana. Figures from the Indiana Department of Education show that statewide kindergarten enrollment in public and charter schools fell by 5,651 from fall 2019 to fall 2020, a decline of 7.2%.  Several large school districts started the year in August with online-only classes, which were sure to be challenging for young children learning their letters and numbers. You can imagine that parents would think, “What the heck, kindergarten isn’t required, let’s just wait a year.”

But transfers to online schools and the decrease in kindergarten students account for only about half of the overall decline in public school enrollment. Some students may have switched to private schools, but the evidence, so far, doesn’t support a public-to-private shift. The number of students who received state-funded vouchers for private school tuition declined from fall 2019, according to state data.

Where did the other students go? Chances are most are being homeschooled, which is largely unregulated and often unreported in Indiana. The question is, will they return to their local public schools when the pandemic is over, or is this a long-term shift in schooling?

1920s Klan fought to control schools

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Schools were a key battleground as the Ku Klux Klan fought to dominate Indiana’s political and cultural life in the 1920s. The Klan promoted Bible reading and prayer in schools and demonized the spread of parochial schools and an imagined Catholic influence in public education.

Klan members thought Catholics were taking over America, Indiana University historian James Madison writes, and “the first point of takeover was public schools. Like generations of American reformers before and since, the Klan saw education reform as necessary for the nation’s revival.”

Book cover of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland

Madison’s new book, “The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland,” focuses on a shameful era in Indiana’s past, when the Klan gained remarkable power and controlled public offices from the Statehouse to local school boards. The organization largely died out within a decade, but its influence continued in racially segregated schools and other aspects of Hoosier life.

Importantly, the 1920s Klan saw itself as mainstream, not an outlier. It promoted patriotism, civic duty and “100% Americanism.” It held massive rallies and marches, complete with marching bands and women’s auxiliaries. It raised money for churches and sponsored musical groups and youth basketball and baseball leagues. Its cross-burnings were spectacles that wowed audiences.

It has been estimated that 30% of white, native-born, Protestant men joined the Klan in Indiana. These were not disaffected loners; they were not the Proud Boys of their day.

“Klansmen came from the middle ranks of white-collar and skilled workers who could afford the $10 initiation fee and the monthly dues,” Madison writes. “Some blue-collar workers joined, but more members were lawyers, physicians, government employees, and owners of small and medium-sized businesses.” Protestant clergy provided important support.

Contrary to popular belief, the 1920s Klan in Indiana did not practice lynching, although it did threaten and intimidate its foes. It saw African Americans and Jews as inferior, but its real enemies were Catholics and immigrants, many of whom had arrived to work in Indiana factories.

First-generation immigrants had reached almost 15% of the U.S. population in 1910, fueling a nationwide backlash. The bogus “race science” of eugenics gained tremendous influence, including among prominent intellectuals. Prohibitionists associated German, Italian and Irish immigrants with the evils of alcohol. The Klan seized on those trends, especially in Indiana.

Education was at the forefront of the Klan’s agenda, which centered on keeping the public schools as preserves of a white, Protestant version of Christianity. Klan publications spread wild claims that Catholic teachers were infiltrating public schools and indoctrinating children.

“A massive parade through downtown Indianapolis in late 1924 featured several floats with school themes and the words ‘One School, One Language, One Bible,’” Madison writes. “Often Klan parades featured a float with a ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ representing the essence of public education and the rejection of parochial schools.”

State legislators elected with Klan support in 1924 introduced bills to require Bible reading and religious instruction in schools, limit teaching licenses to graduates of public schools and ban the wearing of “religious garb” in public schools; the latter was aimed at Catholic nuns who sometimes taught in public schools in areas with teacher shortages. The bills didn’t pass, but local measures gained more traction. While there had always been some racial segregation in Hoosier schools, Indianapolis, Gary, Evansville and Kokomo opened separate high schools for Black students in the 1920s. (The legislature outlawed school segregation in 1949, but it continued in practice for years after that).

Madison rejects the story usually told about the 1920s Indiana Klan: that it collapsed with the arrest and conviction of its charismatic but vicious leader, D.C. Stephenson, for causing the death of a young woman. ““Blaming a wicked Grand Dragon absolves all others and makes the Klan a fluke occurrence that arrived and disappeared along with Stephenson,” he writes.

“The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland” also covers the resurgence of the Klan as a small, virulently racist group in the 1960s, but its focus is the large and influential Klan of the 1920s; and what’s striking about the story is its familiarity. The mass events, the celebration of “100% Americanism,” echo in today’s Make America Great Again rallies. The demonization of immigrants sounds a lot like President Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists.” The demand for Bible reading in schools foreshadows today’s support of Christian education with state-funded vouchers.

It’s easy to point fingers, however, and this history should also remind us of some uncomfortable truths: One person’s “Hoosier values” can look like hate to someone else. “Us against them” divisions can quickly turn ugly. And the rhetoric of public education can be used to exclude as easily as to welcome.

The Klan era of the 1920s is a not-too-distant mirror reflecting a strange but recognizable image of our own time. What we see will depend on how critically – and how self-critically — we look.

Jenner appointment no surprise

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Gov. Eric Holcomb choosing his chief education adviser to be Indiana’s first secretary of education was about as surprising as night following day. The whole point of making this an appointed position, after all, was so the governor and secretary would be on the same page regarding education. Who better to hold the job than someone who has worked closely with Holcomb on K-12 policy?

That said, Katie Jenner looks to be a reasonable choice. She was a teacher, albeit briefly. She was an assistant principal and assistant superintendent at Madison Consolidated Schools. She worked at Ivy Tech Community College until Holcomb made her his senior education adviser. She has master’s and doctoral degrees in education, along with an MBA.

Katie Jenner (Office of the Governor)

She will take over the duties now carried out by Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s last elected superintendent of public instruction. Legislators voted to change the name of the position to secretary of education and to make it appointed, not elected.

Jenner has mostly kept a low profile in state policy and politics, and it seems she hasn’t made any real enemies or clashed publicly with other officials. From what little I’ve heard, she is competent, well liked and committed to education. Advocacy groups from across the spectrum say they are eager to work with her (not that they have a choice). I also wish her well and hope she does a great job.

Jason Bearce, vice president of education and workforce development for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, reiterated the group’s support for having the governor appoint the chief education officer.

“What we are particularly excited about with Katie is in both her prior roles for the Madison Consolidated Schools and Ivy Tech Community College she worked closely with employers to better align K-12 education with workforce needs and opportunities,” Bearce said in a statement.

Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said it was “critical” that Jenner has experience in K-12 education as a teacher and administrator.

“We look forward to working with Dr. Jenner to bring leaders together to invest in public schools, support Hoosier educators and provide the highest quality public education for our students,” he said.

But, for better or worse, Jenner will answer to the governor, not to the voters. McCormick, elected in 2016 as a Republican, has been a fiercely independent state superintendent. She has been an outspoken advocate for public school districts, sometimes clashing with supporters of charter and private schools.

Jenner won’t play that role, but will she stand up to legislators and the State Board of Education if they push policies that aren’t good for schools and students? With the state facing tough decisions on school funding, accountability and other issues, we may find out soon.

A-to-F school grades to continue

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The Indiana State Board of Education is almost certain to continue the state’s unfortunate policy of using A-to-F grades to rate schools, judging by a framework that the board received this week.

The draft accountability framework was presented and briefly discussed at Tuesday’s board meeting. Board staff, who wrote the document, insisted it isn’t set in stone and that it will be up to the board – with input from stakeholders and the public – to decide how the system will work.

“We are trying to be transparent,” said Ron Sandlin, the board’s senior director of school performance. “The point of the framework is to spur conversations about these ideas.”

But the very first recommendation in the document is that A-to-F grades continue. The justification: “Issuing a fair and transparent summative rating ensures communities can quickly assess school performance and establishes effective incentives for schools.”

Note that the school grading system is being developed by the State Board of Education, with most of its members appointed by the governor. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, who heads the Indiana Department of Education, has favored a different approach to accountability.

Indiana started labeling schools with letter grades in 2011 and made the approach part of state law the following year. Indiana is one of 16 states that use letter grades for school accountability, according to the Education Commission of the States.

The draft framework does call for tweaking the grading metrics. That’ no surprise. The old system essentially collapsed under the weight of tougher state standards, new tests and the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana’s 2019-20 school grades were meaningless, even more so than usual.

For schools serving students in grades K-8, the system relies primarily on standardized tests and gives equal weight to students’ performance and growth on the tests. The draft framework says Indiana should continue that general approach, but with some changes.

It would cap the grading points that schools receive for test-score growth, trying to balance a system in which growth points are awarded more generously than performance points. And it would adopt variable weighting of growth vs. performance, making allowance for student mobility. It suggests the board consider adding accountability factors for K-8 school grades, possibly including third-grade literacy, science and social studies test scores and attendance.

For high schools, the framework suggests more rigorous measures of “college and career readiness” and a fairer system of calculating graduation rates. Standardized test measures will have to change, because Indiana is dropping its 10th-grade math and English tests in favor of using the SAT for accountability.

Another issue is that Indiana has two school accountability systems: a state system that uses A-to-F grades and a federal system that complies with the Every Student Succeeds Action. That’s confusing, to say the least. The framework touches on the problem but doesn’t spell out how to fix it.

“Indiana should design a state accountability system that prioritizes Hoosier values and strive to use the same indicators for the state and federal models as is allowable under law,” it says.

OK, I’ll just say this: I’ve lived in Indiana for seven decades and I have no idea “Hoosier values” means; and I don’t think the state board could define the term either, especially when it comes to evaluating schools. Yet those words appear six times in a 14-page document.

There’s a lot more to the framework, and you can read the framework or a shorter summary on the State Board of Education website. You can suggest changes by email or through online surveys. Board staff want to finalize the framework by January; then the board will use it to write a new rule spelling out how school grades will work in the future.

I’m glad there will be changes, but I worry they will provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to cover a flawed enterprise. A-to-F grades are a horrible way to measure something as complex as school quality. And we have seen time after time that high grades go to schools serving affluent families and that, with few exceptions, schools serving low-income families and students of color get the D’s and F’s.

A-to-F grades reinforce the illusion that schools are “good” or “bad” based on the populations of students that they serve. That’s not accountability.

Lost enrollment costs schools

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Indiana school districts stand to lose over $100 million in state funding this year because of reduced enrollment attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fall 2020 enrollment in traditional public schools declined by 17,300 students, according to data released last week by the Indiana Department of Education. Each of those students translates to over $6,200 in lost funding from the state.

It’s not yet clear what happened or where the students went. Some families may have opted to homeschool their children rather than send them to school during the pandemic. Some may have switched to private or charter schools.

A significant factor could be families with young children choosing to delay or skip kindergarten. Indiana does not require kindergarten attendance, and children are not required to start school until the academic year when they turn 7.

Over 80% of school districts lost enrollment, according to state data. They include some rural and urban districts that have been shedding students for years, but also suburban districts that have been growing. Hamilton Southeastern schools lost over 400 students; Carmel Clay schools lost over 200.

Indianapolis Public Schools lost the most students: nearly 2,000 according to the state data or approximately 1,200 according to the district’s own figures. (The discrepancy appears to reflect the state omitting from the district’s enrollment two KIPP charter schools that are part of the IPS innovation network; IPS includes the schools in its count).

Fort Wayne, Vigo County and Monroe County schools each lost more than 500 students. In Monroe County, the loss of 535 students will mean a financial hit of $3.3 million, the Herald-Times reported.

Some school districts started the academic year online, and that may have pushed some families to turn to charter or private schools that were offering face-to-face instruction. But it appears a bigger factor was families choosing online programs to avoid in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Charter schools increased their enrollment by about 2,500, but most of the sector’s growth came from a gain over nearly 2,000 students by Connections Academy, an online charter school. Similarly, two school districts that offer statewide online programs in partnership with for-profit K12 Inc. also saw significant growth, presumably because of those online programs. Union School Corp. reported its enrollment grew from 4,396 to 6,468. Clarksville Community Schools grew from 1,635 to 2,987.

The loss of funding comes as schools are facing cost increases related to the pandemic: expenses for online programs, computers and internet connections, protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other needs. Federal funding via the CARES Act helped pay some of those costs, but not all of them.

The big question is whether Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Republican-dominated state legislature will prioritize school funding in the two-year budget they approve in the spring. When it comes to school funding, there’s likely to be more bad news ahead.