TOPICS > Education

Indiana Crafts Dropout Remedy Through Choice of Schools

November 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Special correspondent John Tulenko reports from Indiana, where a voucher program allows families to choose religious schools, charter schools and public schools in neighboring districts for their children as part of an effort to provide more options when graduation rates are low.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, as part of our American Graduate series, we looked at the high school dropout crisis and heard suggestions from teachers in St. Louis.

Tonight, another take on how to improve public education, it comes from Indiana, where the current remedy is, provide more choices when graduation rates are too low.

Special correspondent John Tulenko reports.

JOHN TULENKO: Anderson, Indiana, a city of 50,000 just outside Indianapolis, in the 1980s, it was home to some 15,000 autoworkers and their families, a General Motors town, until the company cut back.

FELIX CHOW, Anderson Schools superintendent: When the company left town, the whole economy left with it.

JOHN TULENKO: And the students left, too.

Felix Chow is superintendent of schools in Anderson. Before GM left, Anderson had 21,000 students in 33 schools.

FELIX CHOW: Today, we have about 7,000 students with nine school buildings.

JOHN TULENKO: As the students left, state support declined, and school buildings were not the only things lost.

WOMAN: We used to offer lots of programs in foreign languages.

JASON GILMAN, Anderson High School: We have lost two foreign languages. Have we…

WOMAN: About to loose two more.

JOHN TULENKO: Jason Gilman and Jan Callan (ph) are veteran teachers at Anderson High School.

WOMAN: We had other kinds of programs that would help the student with enrichment; we were able to take them on field trips. There’s no way we could do that now.

JOHN TULENKO: Academic performance is another problem. The dropout rate is high. Only about 55 percent of students here graduate. And in the lower grades, test scores lag well behind state averages.

FELIX CHOW: Let me do a mea culpa that we, as an institution, have a lot to improve. We have to improve our administration and our teachers.

JOHN TULENKO: But should families have to wait around for that to happen? Republican lawmakers in Indiana said no. A few months back, they passed a series of laws establishing what is called school choice. And now families have three new alternatives to their neighborhood public school.

Option one: private school.

TEACHER AND STUDENTS: The lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.

JOHN TULENKO: A new statewide voucher program lets low-income families to send their children to schools like Liberty Christian in Anderson. The money for their tuition, up to $4,500 per student, comes from Indiana’s public school fund.

TEACHER: Close your eyes.

Father, thank you so much for the story of Jonah. God, help us as we learn and grow. Lord, we love you. And we praise you for today. In Jesus’ name…

STUDENTS: Amen.

TEACHER: OK.

JOHN TULENKO: Indiana courts have so far ruled the program constitutional, because parents, not the state, choose where to spend their voucher.

JEREMY COWIN, Liberty Christian School: Some people choose Liberty because of the Christian education. Others choose Liberty, I think, because they want a solid education.

JOHN TULENKO: Jeremy Cowin directs Liberty Christian. Of the 570 students here in grades K-12, 120 qualified for the state’s voucher.

JEREMY COWIN: Anything that you would get in a public school system, we’re offering those courses as well, science, math, reading, anatomy and physiology. We have art classes, a photography class, a yearbook class. And our children perform very well. Almost 100 percent graduate every year, almost 100 percent. And we’re living in a community where the graduation rate is more in the mid-50s.

JOHN TULENKO: The second option for Indiana families: public charter schools. More are opening as a result of new legislation.

Anderson families have the option of Anderson Preparatory Academy, a charter school with a military theme. Here, the students are called cadets and the faculty have rank.

Chief academic officer John Hayden (ph) goes by Captain Hayden.

MAN: We have rituals here like a family does. It happens to be military rituals, standing up when we come into classroom, brace in the hallways, and probably the most noticeable is “Yes, sir,” “No, sir” is required.

MAN: Correct?

STUDENTS: Yes, sir.

JOHN TULENKO: Hayden says all this discipline pays off.

MAN: They feel safe and secure, so that they can actually think, instead of being in the flight or fight mode, which happens a lot in schools. Our kids can worry about, what’s the next thing I need to know in algebra?

JOHN TULENKO: Some 400 new students chose to enroll here this fall, most of them transfers from Anderson public schools.

Besides charter schools and private schools, families here have one other new option. City quickly gives way to country in the neighboring school district of Lapel. Many Anderson families send their children here. Recent statewide reforms let parents choose public schools outside the district where they live.

BOBBY FIELDS, Lapel District superintendent: We have a very good reputation.

JOHN TULENKO: Bobby Fields is the district superintendent.

BOBBY FIELDS: It’s relatively small. The teachers know everybody by name. There are a lot of old-school things, I would call it, that are appealing to a lot of people. And they want their kids to come here.

JOHN TULENKO: High test scores and graduation rates are two more reasons some 300 Anderson families chose to send their children here this fall.

TONY BENNETT, Indiana superintendent of public instruction: Some of our most disadvantaged families do not have the choices to move to the suburbs, to move to a private school.

JOHN TULENKO: State School Superintendent Tony Bennett has been the driving force behind the Republican-led choice movement in Indiana.

TONY BENNETT: What this has done, it has allowed — and the statistics are bearing it out — it is allowing families the opportunity to pursue prosperity for their children. If we’re going to break the cycle of poverty, we have to provide those options.

ED DELANEY, D-Ind. state representative: It’s not our obligation as a state to support every choice that everybody wants to make.

JOHN TULENKO: Democratic State Rep. Ed DeLaney prefers high-quality public schools over choice.

ED DELANEY: These schools are like little car companies, and they’re all announcing, I have made the greatest new car. No proof, no evidence, no history. This is not a scientific experiment. It’s an attempt, in my view, to just push down public education.

JOHN TULENKO: For Anderson’s already struggling nine public schools, choice has made a bad situation worse. This year, the district is losing 1,000 students to private schools, charter schools and neighboring districts.

Anderson’s superintendent, Felix Chow:

FELIX CHOW: If you lose 1,000 students, that’s $6 million. So we have to cut $6 million equivalent in expenditure in order to balance the books.

JOHN TULENKO: Some 200 teachers, a third of the total, recently lost their jobs, and class sizes have grown. An obvious solution is for Anderson schools to improve, so not as many students leave and take their state dollars with them.

But Anderson’s new competitors are making that hard.

JASON GILMAN: Some schools cherry-pick. One school in the area actually sent out flyers to kids. Somehow, they got ahold of a list of high-level kids and basically made a flyer and mailed it to them: Look at what we can offer. You should come here.

JOHN TULENKO: Meanwhile, Anderson’s neediest students have been turned away.

Do you accept students with special needs?

JEREMY COWIN: That’s a difficult question. There might be a student who comes in right now. Maybe they applied for a fifth-grade class and they’re reading on a kindergarten reading level, and their math achievement was on a kindergarten level. Academically, I am not equipped to meet their need.

JOHN TULENKO: By definition, private schools are selective, but Indiana’s new laws allow some public schools to accept and reject students.

Anderson’s neighbor, Lapel, for instance, accepts only transfer students with at least a 2.0 grade point average and they cannot have been expelled or suspended.

BOBBY FIELDS: That’s the way the state has set the rules, and we’re just trying to play the game the best that we can.

JOHN TULENKO: Others fear a bigger problem with choice has more to do with self-selection.

ED DELANEY: The parents who are energetic and active will answer the advertisements for these new opportunities and take their kids there. That’s what’s going to happen. So what we’re going to do is in certain — especially in the urban areas, were going to turn the public schools into places of last resort.

TONY BENNETT: We have a lot of great school leaders out there who aren’t saying, oh, woe is me, we’re going to lose our schools. What they’re saying is, we’re going to lace our shoes up and we’re going to compete and we’re going to win.

JOHN TULENKO: Anderson is fighting back, despite rules that work against it, with four new initiatives.

FELIX CHOW: Character education, health education, teamwork and leadership.

JOHN TULENKO: Are you putting those things in your schools?

FELIX CHOW: Yes. If a child has no sense of character, you get a lot of smart crooks. You need health. We try to provide much healthier lunch menus. We emphasize physical exercise starting at the lower grade. Teamwork and leadership, we try to do as much as — project learning, group work. With school choice, the best school will get the students. We can compete.

JOHN TULENKO: But to others, choice, even among good schools, is not the right path.

ED DELANEY: We don’t need a common education in America anymore. That’s the underlining thought. You can go off into your little select religious group, and the state will support you. I’m troubled by this. We’re going to have people who don’t know each other. It’s just that simple.

TONY BENNETT: If we don’t provide quality educational opportunities, regardless of where they come from, to all of our children, I believe we’re going to see a greater separation in the long term. We’re going to see the erosion of the middle class.

JOHN TULENKO: Who benefits from choice? Certainly, it gives some students new options and opportunities. But, for struggling students and those requiring special services, choice appears to open fewer doors, though it is leading their schools to improve.

So, is choice in Indiana progress? Call it a work in progress.