Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Vouchers for Indiana?

Indiana lawmakers will start the debate Tuesday on the most controversial plank of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' sweeping education platform: a plan to use taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private schools.

Republican lawmakers who control the House and Senate have been successful so far in their efforts to shepherd Daniels' education proposals through the legislative process despite objections from many teachers, education unions and minority Democrats. But the voucher bill, which will be debated in the House education committee Tuesday, seems to be raising the most questions.

Opponents are criticizing the proposals' basic principle -- shifting public money to private schools -- and some lawmakers have more practical concerns that supporters hope to address by amending the bill Tuesday.

"I think there are more questions about this bill among lawmakers than some of the other (education) proposals," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis who is one of the bill's sponsors.

One of those is exactly who should qualify for a voucher, which supporters including Bosma have dubbed "school choice scholarships."

Under the plan, money that would typically go to a public school for educating a child would be given to an eligible parent to use at a private school instead. The state won't give parents the entire amount that would have gone to the public school, however, which could mean the state could save money through the program. Only students currently in public schools would be eligible.

The bill uses a sliding scale that gives the most needy families larger vouchers worth 90 percent of the per-student amount that the student's public school receives. For example, if the state now gives about $6,000 to a public school district for a child's education, it could offer low-income families vouchers worth 90 percent of that, or $5,400. The family could use that toward private school tuition, while the state would keep the remaining $600.

Under the proposal, families that qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program -- those making about $40,000 a year for a family of four -- would be eligible for a 90 percent voucher. However, the sliding scale provides 25 percent vouchers -- worth about $1,500 in the example situation -- for families of four making more than $100,000 a year.

Bosma said supporters hope to tweak the bill to tighten eligibility requirements to focus on lower-income families.

Daniels says it's a matter of justice that low-income students should have the same choice to attend private schools as wealthier families. He and other advocates say Indiana could lead the nation by creating a wide-reaching statewide voucher program.

"We intend to become the first state of full and true choice by saying to every low- and middle-income Hoosier family, 'If you think a non-government school is the right one for your child, you're as entitled to that option as any wealthy family; here's a voucher, go sign up.'" Daniels said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. on Friday.

Public school teachers have denounced the voucher proposal, saying it is part of Daniels' agenda to erode public education. The Indiana Coalition for Public Education held a news conference Monday saying taxpayer money shouldn't be directed to private schools, which can deny admission to certain students and don't have to follow the same accountability rules as public schools.

"By providing vouchers for private schools, we are diverting public tax money to private schools," said Joel Hand, the group's executive director. "That is not taxpayer-friendly to our Hoosier citizens and it is not good policy."


Streamlining education in Connecticut

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s announcement this week that he intends to streamline the state’s higher education administrative functions is welcome news.

We have on several occasions called for such actions, in particular regarding the state university system’s top heavy administration, questioning the necessity of the duplication of administrative functions from a central office staff to four separate administrative staffs at each of the four universities.

The governor’s proposal, however, goes much further, recommending the consolidation of the Connecticut State University System, community colleges and the Board of Governors for Higher Education under a single Board of Regents for Higher Education reporting to a single chief executive officer.

We fully support this move, believing that it will produce cost savings through the elimination of duplication of services, and provide greater efficiencies of our higher education systems that in the long run will be a benefit for students and taxpayers.

Also this week, Malloy announced he intends to fully fund the state Education Cost Sharing grant in his proposed budget to be presented Wednesday to the General Assembly. That, too, is welcome news because those ECS funds are crucial for local communities struggling to balance their budgets and maintain the highest quality education possible for elementary and secondary school students.

Granted, fully funding the ECS grants will only result in communities receiving the same level of state aid they received last year, making for another tough budget year for towns. But to accomplish that, the governor will have to replace $270 million in federal stimulus funds, and the governor has not disclosed from where those funds will come.


Royal Society condemns British High School exams as 'not fit for purpose', and calls for European baccalaureates

Only 3 per cent of students leave university with a degree in maths or pure science, a report shows. Of last year’s 300,000 graduates, just 10,000 studied chemistry, physics, biology or maths, according to the Royal Society. The celebrated research institution also said that one in six secondary schools had not entered a single candidate for A-level physics.

It said the A-level system was unfit for purpose and should be scrapped in favour of European-style baccalaureates. That would see teenagers studying six or more core subjects, including science and maths.

Education Secretary Michael Gove recently introduced a measure into school performance tables to encourage the study of what are seen as more rigorous subjects. The move is aimed at stopping Britain tumbling further down international league tables for science and maths.

And it would bring the state system into line with many private schools which have already adopted the six-subject International Baccalaureate.

Most students study three A-levels but under the IB they would take six courses including a language, a science, maths and a social science.

Followed by 900,000 students in 140 countries, the IB is widely respected by universities and studied in many top private schools. The Royal Society believes it would ensure students are qualified to do a university degree in a STEM subject: science, technology, engineering or maths. Employers complain of a major shortage of such graduates.

The Royal Society report says: ‘Given that higher education institutions tend to want STEM undergraduates to have taken more than one science subject (excluding mathematics), and that many students would welcome being able to take a wider range and number of subjects at A-level, it is clear that A-levels are not fit for purpose.’

The authors say England is lagging behind the rest of the UK. Students in Scotland already take five highers and both Scotland and Wales are looking at Baccalaureate-style qualifications for science and languages for post-16 education.

The report blamed England’s woeful science and maths provision on a shortage of specialist teachers.

Schools are also failing to warn pupils away from picking subjects at A-level that are unsuitable for science and maths degrees.

Dame Athene Donald, a physics professor who is chairman of the Royal Society’s education committee, said: ‘At a time of economic uncertainty, when science and scientists can play a key role in revitalising the UK’s financial outlook, it is deeply worrying to find that numbers of A-level science students are at such low levels.’

Schools minister Nick Gibb endorsed the report’s findings, saying: ‘We echo the concerns of the Royal Society about the need to improve the teaching and take-up of science and mathematics in our schools. ‘The UK continues to fall down international league tables and we now languish at 27th in the world for maths, and 16th for science – falling 19 and 14 places respectively in under ten years.’

However Mark Dawe, of exam board OCR, said A-levels offered choice, flexibility and excellent preparation for university. ‘They also leave curriculum space for other forms of enrichment and development,’ he added.


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