The Lost Portable
This guest post is by author, educator, and consultant Ray Golarz. For almost 20 years, Dr. Golarz directed work with at-risk children and gangs near Chicago. In addition, he did extensive work with juvenile courts, probation offices, and police departments.
There’s no way to know of some of the marvelous things that principals and teachers do…unless, of course, you stumble upon such accidentally.
It was a spectacular spring day. From my office, I could see Johnny, the Director of Buildings and Grounds, walking briskly through the sun-filled hallway.
“Johnny, found that portable classroom yet?”
I was having a little fun with him. Last year we were using ten of the portable classrooms. Two were sitting idle—well, one was sitting idle. The whereabouts of the second was unknown.
In the school business you get used to having some things occasionally disappear: library books, computers, basketballs, baseball equipment, even once a fairly sizable, portable soccer backstop—but a portable classroom? Never before lost a portable classroom.
I knew it was a sensitive spot for Johnny, so I let up, laughed and said, “Johnny, don’t worry. We’ll find it. I mean, really. How far can you get with a hot portable? Where would you fence it?”
Later that week, Johnny and I were visiting some elementary schools. Teachers never get enough visitors and I always found it to be an uplifting experience. We drove to the last school on our list and as we circled the school grounds, we marveled at the beautiful flower beds surrounding the new parent center behind the school. The new parent center—what an attractive gift to the poor parents of this community.
We stopped. As we sat there, not looking at one another, Johnny asked, “Ray, what would you estimate the size of that freshly painted, one-room parent center, surrounded by beautiful flowers, to be?”
“You mean is it possible that the parent center with the flower boxes under the windows and new white gutters and down spouts is about the same size as a missing classroom portable?”
We went into the building to find Nancy the principal. In the hallway we ran into her. Surprised, she exclaimed. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. Have you time to stop at the parent center?”
“Nancy, that’s what we need to talk to you about.”
“Great, let’s talk in the parent center; it’s not as full now as in the morning. Can’t even find elbow room in there in the mornings.”
“Full? What are you talking about, Nancy?”
“Well, we opened the center about six weeks ago. Within a week, by 6:30 a.m. it was full of young mothers. They found out that a number of our teachers were coming in early to teach a few mothers how to read. Well, they all wanted to learn to read. Run three morning classes now, an hour each, starting at 5 a.m., about twenty in a class. Teachers rotate the teaching of the classes.”
“They come at 5 a.m.?”
“Some would come earlier. If they stay at home, their drunken exes or boyfriends coming in from the bars look to beat them up, then rape ‘em unless they consent. It’s a bad situation for these young women. Poor is not a good thing to be in America. But, I’m sorry. Here I am running off at the mouth, and you wanted to talk to me about something.”
I looked at Johnny, then said, “It can wait, Nancy. It can wait.”
We had our visit. Even enjoyed doughnuts made by the teachers. As we passed the center in our car, we stopped for a final look.
“What do you think, Johnny?”
Johnny quietly responded, “Think the portable we’re lookin’ for is smaller. I’m sure it’s smaller.”
I smiled, winked and responded, “Think you’re right, Johnny. Think you’re right.”
ILEARN and free lunch data in Indiana offer a window onto public, charter, and private schools and the populations they serve
Free lunch rates are a proxy for family income levels. To qualify for free lunch, you need to make 130%, or lower, of what the federal government has set as the poverty level for a family of a given size. In 2018–19, that was about $33,000 for a family of four. A high free lunch rate means that a school serves mainly low-income families, many of whom are likely dealing with the stresses of poverty: food insecurity, unemployment, multiple low-paying jobs, irregular medical care, transient housing situations, and transportation challenges. A low free lunch rate, on the other hand, means that a school serves a more affluent population with more of its basic needs met.*
In the course of looking into how free lunch rates are related to ILEARN passing rates, we got valuable information about what income levels different types of Indiana schools—all publicly funded—are serving. Among public, charter, Catholic, Lutheran, and “independent” (other religious private) schools, there are clear trends, and clear aggregate differences, in student bodies when it comes to wealth, poverty, and the stretch between.
How do free lunch rates differ at the different types of schools? Here are some takeaways:
1) Public schools serve the most students and the broadest range of students. Some public schools have very low free lunch rates, some have very high ones, and many are in the broad middle: they are densest in the 25% to 75% free lunch range. There are many public schools in the 0–25% range, and slightly fewer in the 75–100% range.
Because there are so many public schools, the dots representing schools form a large oblong shape, like a big diagonal fish, and you can clearly see the close connection of free lunch rate and ILEARN scores.
2) The bulk of charter schools serve higher-poverty populations, likely because many are in the urban cores of Indiana’s cities. Only eleven of the 59 charter schools pictured here serve a population in the first two quartiles of free lunch, the 0–50% range. The rest are pretty evenly distributed throughout the 50–100% range, but with a number clustered on the 100% mark. (There are about 100 charters in Indiana this year, but about forty do not have populations that were tested—probably because they are high schools only.)
Keep in mind that the number of charter schools is different than the number of charter students. About a quarter of charter students attend poorly performing online (“virtual”) charter schools. That’s not visible in the ILEARN data because those online schools are mainly high schools, whose students did not take English and math ILEARN.
3) Lutheran schools are clustered in the lowest poverty (0–25%) quartile, with some in the 25–50% range and only three total schools in the 50–100% range. Lutheran schools are not evenly distributed. They are serving well-off students, relatively speaking. They appear to have lower average ILEARN performance than public schools with similar free lunch rates.
4) Catholic (Archdiocese) schools are densest in the lowest poverty (0–25%) quartile, with a fair number in the 25–50% quartile, fewer in the 50–75% quartile, and very few in the 75–100% free lunch quartile. Their scores are no higher on average than those of public schools with similar free lunch demographics. As public schools do, they show a strong connection between scores and free lunch rates.
5) Independent schools (mainly religious schools that are neither Catholic nor Lutheran) are all over the map both in terms of free lunch rate and scores. While the free lunch/ILEARN score connection is present, many have lower scores than the public school trend line would predict.
Looking at these graphs, it’s impossible to argue that publicly funded schools that are not public are showing higher achievement (as measured by ILEARN) than public schools when you take into account the income levels of the populations they serve. That’s probably why some well-bankrolled entities advocating for “choice”—i.e., the diversion of public funds into private and privatized schools—have pretty much abandoned that line of argument. Others are still making it despite evidence to the contrary.
What, then, is the Indiana supermajority's rationale for moving public money into schools that do not have the same transparency requirements, obligations to serve all students, and democratic local governance as public schools? In the case of the Catholic and Lutheran schools, money is leaving the public school system, further depleting inadequate funds, to go to private schools that disproportionately serve more affluent students.
When state grades based on ILEARN are given to schools, they will reward the affluent and punish the poor, just as they did with ISTEP. This is not an occasional problem, a bug, but rather a feature that is baked into the school grading system. Teachers rallying at the Indiana Statehouse on November 19 will be demanding that legislators hold schools and educators harmless for low scores in this first year of ILEARN. But even if legislators and the State Board of Education respond as they should, it will not address the larger problem: that grading schools based on test scores consistently labels and harms schools and educators serving vulnerable populations.
Do your state representative and senator approve of that? Do they vote to transfer taxpayer dollars away from public schools into other, less accountable types of schools? Have you asked them? Have you conveyed your concerns? When you talk to your local legislators, we encourage you to print out these graphs, which use data from the Indiana Department of Education.
–Keri Miksza and Jenny Robinson
*It’s important to note that free lunch rates don’t tell us about the extremes and are limited in their description of an area’s income. For instance, a school with a 20% free lunch population could potentially have a higher average income among its families than one that served 10% free lunch.
Back in September, I drove up and down the state delivering more than 100 yard signs to cities from Portage and Anderson to Charlestown and Newburgh. People (my husband) thought I was insane. I drove all by myself in peace and quiet (we have two young kids), away from the internet and in between projects for the two jobs I have (I’m living the American dream). I binged on podcasts and listened to stand-up comedy, uncensored, because I could. I stopped at local food joints as well—from Big Ben’s BBQ in Jeffersonville to Henze’s bakery in Valparaiso. I also sat at many railroad crossings. I think Griffith and Porter tie for two of the largest crossings I recall encountering in Indiana. All in all, this trip doesn’t sound too insane to a 40-something mom.
Some of you had amazing fall décor—big word planks (with messages like “Welcome Fall”), sitting next to your front doors, are popular all over Indiana. Others were still holding onto summer and had your green thumb on full display in your front yards and decks.
But, let me get to the point: what I learned from this road trip.
In the end, what I learned is simple, obvious, and contrary to the messages coming out of the statehouse: We who support public education come from all walks of life. Public education is the great equalizer. Public schools are the hearts of our communities and need qualified staff and teachers to ensure proper operation. Underfunding public education makes no sense. The current funding course the state is on for the sake of “choice” could more aptly be termed "austerity” and is not sustainable. If it were, we would not have referendums to help pay for teachers. It is imperative to pay attention. Let's focus on getting the right people into office to ensure that ALL Hoosier children will have access to an equitable education offered by accountable schools filled with well-trained, well-paid teachers and support staff.
Tomorrow and every election day, be sure to vote for public education.
—Keri Miksza, vice chair of Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County