On Thursday night, West Lafayette City Councilman David Sanders hosted a forum for the six candidates running for the West Lafayette School Board. It was not a lengthy affair. Opening, closing, and two questions that all of the candidates answered. One of the questions was fairly anodyne – what do you want to accomplish if you are elected? The second question, however, was a bit of a curve ball. He asked if the candidates supported charter schools. This really should have been a bunny of a question. If you’re running to be on the board of a traditional public school as strong as the West Lafayette Community School Corporation, there is no upside to embracing charters. You should be committed to keeping a good thing going.
The two incumbents, Witt and Springer, are categorically against charters. They’ve been in the trenches for many years and have seen how the Indiana General Assembly has used charters and private school vouchers to undermine the traditional public schools in Indiana. While it may work in other places, it’s a non-starter here. (As I’ve pointed out on this blog, Massachusetts has managed to make some productive use of charters, but it has a regulatory structure that the Indiana General Assembly will never, ever embrace.) A third candidate, George Lyle, seemed to recognize that as well, nodding toward the theory behind charters but not supporting the way they’re implemented here.
On the other side of the fence, we have an anti-incumbent group of three candidates. That this group is receptive to charter schools is a matter of concern. Wang and Mumford said clearly that they support charter schools. Janes who answered the question later in the line up and perhaps sensing the mood of the crowd, hedged quite a bit before ultimately landing on the the position that West Lafayette was not the place for them. [Update 9/26/2022: I’ve received feedback from people who disagree with my characterization of the Janes’ response. My recollection was an answer that spent most of the time allotted speaking to why parents would want charter schools before, as I said, ultimately landing on the position that West Lafayette was not the place for charter schools. I do not recall the opposition to charters being stated in the beginning of the answer or hearing anything that alluded to concerns about how the State has used charters to undermine public education in Indiana. I guess the quibble was with me calling this a “hedge.” Fair enough. If a video of the forum surfaces, I’ll take a look at it to see if my recollection is faulty. Memories being what they are, it’s possible I conflated some of her response with the Mumford answer since the two seem aligned on most issues.]
So, what’s wrong with charter schools? In a Facebook post, one of our teachers said she couldn’t support a candidate who supports charters. A person in the thread respectfully disagreed, arguing that competition is good. Well, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t competition good? Not the way things are set up in Indiana. In the Massachusetts example, the charters are tightly regulated with a lot of good oversight by its state board of education so that charters and traditional public schools complement each other. In Indiana, on the other hand, it’s the wild west for charters. They don’t “compete” by the same rules. They fracture the school system, divert money from traditional public schools, and there is no evidence that students perform better in those charters — the outcomes are either the same or worse.
Pursuant to IC 20-4-3-5, public schools are authorized to transfer money from referendum tax levies to charter schools operating in the school’s attendance area. – This is scary – this will give the charter (is there a percentage of referendum funds the school will have to turn over?) schools money to rent and depending on the amount to even build do add ons to their buildings. No over site with all that money being tossed around like confetti.
They legislative should be more focused on making our public schools more competitive iinstead of being stuck in the bottom of our fifty states in our educational ranking.
Doug Masson says
I updated the citation – my link was correct, but the correct Indiana Code provision is IC 20-40-3-5. Subsection (b) just says, “A school corporation may distribute proceeds of a tax levy collected under IC 20-46-1 that is transferred to the school corporation’s education fund to a charter school, excluding a virtual charter school, that is located within the attendance area of the school corporation.”
Pursuant to IC 20-46-1-8(d), a resolution for a referendum levy has to “indicate whether proceeds in the school corporation’s education fund collected from a tax levy under this chapter will be used to provide a distribution to a charter school or charter schools, excluding a virtual charter school, under IC 20-40-3-5 as well as the amount that will be distributed to the particular charter school or charter schools.” So, I don’t know that there is any limitation, but the amount probably has to show up on the referendum.
KIRK EICHER-MILLER says
Doug, could you suggest who to vote for in the local school board race? I would be tempted to vote for the incumbents, along the lines with your post. However, Patti O’Callahan has a sign for Mumford in her yard for Mumford, and I usually would defer to Patti. I will ask her. Perhaps it doesn’t really make much difference. I worry that the new people are sort of issue driven and will cause acrimony where none is needed. I wish you were running again!
Doug Masson says
Thanks Kirk! I very much favor Karen Springer, Rachel Witt, and George Lyle.
For starters, our schools are very strong. Karen and Rachel have served on the board for many years and are, in my opinion, important reasons for the school remaining that way. They work well with the administration and the teachers. They are very knowledgeable about how the school functions and the state and federal constraints under which the school operates. I don’t know George nearly as well, but he strikes me as a level-headed guy with no single agenda and an honest desire to do right by our schools.
I think the anti-incumbent sentiment is driven by a variety of personal grievances and that the criticisms leveled at the school by the anti-incumbent faction have been largely disingenuous and specious. That’s not to say there isn’t any room for criticism or improvement in the West Lafayette schools. But, reading some of what gets thrown around in the West Lafayette “open forum” Facebook page (a campaign site masquerading as an informational resource), I get the distinct impression that the critiques are convenient bricks to throw at the incumbents and not some grass roots driven desire for improvement.
For example, the recent Niches.com ranking (which has its flaws) ranks West Lafayette as the #1 school for teachers in the state. But in Election World, there is a Problem in the West Lafayette schools with teacher turnover. The insinuation is that this is driven by dissatisfaction with the current board and administration. But, if you look at who is leaving, there is nothing all that remarkable. Our turnover is no worse than the rest of Indiana. You’ll see people leaving to follow spouses to other jobs, health concerns, a few asked to leave for disciplinary reasons, retirements, etc. When pushed, I think I’ve see a sort of “motte and bailey” form of arguing style. The motte is this broad insinuation that there is a Problem — of the sort that justifies new school board members. The bailey, when pressed on the details, is some variation of “well, there’s always room for improvement.” Sure, but that’s not something that requires a “throw out the bums” attitude about the current board.
Then there are these critiques that there is some sort of financial crisis looming. School capital funding is opaque and not easily understood. This is being used to throw out some big numbers having to do with construction projects at West Side and try to leverage those numbers into votes. This is a repeat of accusations made in 2020, and I wrote a long, tedious explainer on school finance, the conclusion of which was: “a) debt service tax rate money can’t be used for teachers; b) our debt service tax rate is the same now as it was before the new construction; c) foregoing new construction would not have given us any flexibility to raise other money for teachers; d) foregoing new construction would not have reduced the tax bill for most residents; and e) referendum money was not used on the new buildings.”
Additionally, I think there is some consternation — some trumped up, some honest — over the superintendent selection process. I could give you a timeline if you wanted, but basically, in the summer of 2021, the school solicited applications with a promise of confidentiality. In November, I think, the candidates had been whittled down to two. The other six members had settled on the candidate who was ultimately selected. Dr. Yin wanted the other one. Immediately after this disagreement, one of the regulars at the “Open Forum” disclosed the finalists names and, ignoring that the applications were solicited under a promise of confidentiality, suddenly – at the end of the process – called for public input. Despite the drumbeat in this circle for “transparency,” nobody will say where the regular obtained the names of the finalists. Anyway, motivations and consistency aside, the practical upshot is that a process that involved public evaluation of applicants would have required the Board to go back to the drawing board and solicit applications with no promise of confidentiality.
Probably a longer answer than you were looking for. But, basically, I think the schools have been run well. That being the case, I think West Lafayette will continue to be well-served if Rachel and Karen are re-elected. And, even if there are areas where criticism is justified and improvement is possible, on the whole, I think the anti-incumbent attacks are unjustified and George Lyle is fresh blood but not anti-incumbent.
Thanks Doug! Appreciate it!