School Choice Isn’t Controversial but Opponents Want You to Think It Is

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By Andrew Pillow

It’s school choice week. Many advocates and supporters of school choice have teamed up to raise awareness of the positive impact that options can bring to education.

Naturally, this brings out the opponents of school choice too. We have already covered the anti-school choice arguments in depth on this blog. They are all bad. That doesn’t stop people from regurgitating them every time school choice comes up in a debate.

This constant debate around school choice may lead you to believe school choice is “controversial” or “polarizing” but it’s not. In fact, most Americans support school choice policies. This isn’t just opinion or anecdotal evidence either. It’s supported by several different studies and polls.

The American Federation for Children recently released it’s annual school choice poll results. Around 63 percent of respondents support school choice. 33 percent said they opposed it. The majority of all three major political groups, Republicans, Independents, and Democrats supported school choice.

School choice is often framed as being “bad” for minorities by opponents. According to this survey, those attacks are not working because minorities support choice at an even higher rate than whites. About 60 percent of whites support school choice policies compared to 66 percent of Blacks and a whopping 72 percent of Latinos.

The American Federation for Children is, of course, a pro school-choice organization and that is relevant, but these numbers have been corroborated by other studies too. For example, a fairly recent poll conducted by Education Next found that less than 20% of African Americans oppose charters and vouchers. 

These polls and numbers paint a different picture than the one portrayed by school choice opponents. School choice is not a polarizing issue but school choice opponents want you to believe it is.

If the president had a positive approval rating from Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Baby Boomers and Millennials we would not seriously be debating whether or not he was the most popular president of all time. So, unless we have changed the definition of “controversial” to mean majority support of all major political, age and ethnic groups across the United States then you have to concede school choice isn’t controversial.

This does not mean that school choice is without its detractors. Even if 70% of all groups supported something that is still 30% who don’t. With that being said, it’s important to distinguish the national conversation from the blogosphere. Talking heads and bloggers might be arguing about school choice… but regular people are not. And that is who matters most.   

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Kentucky Legislators Want to Shut Down Charter Schools Before They Open

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By Andrew Pillow

Kentucky has taken the first steps to opening charter schools. Gov. Matt Bevin signed the charter school law last march. This law would allow for the creation of publicly funded, independently ran schools. Kentucky is one of the last states not to already offer this option. 44 states and Washington, D.C. already have charter schools.

Different legislators and groups are still working out the details and the regulations behind the law. No charter schools have been opened as of yet, and if a small group of representative has their say… it will stay that way.

Several Democratic representatives have filed a bill to repeal the 2017 charter school law Gov. Bevin signed in its entirety.

Rep. Attica Scott believes the original bill in question shouldn’t have made it this far. "It was a bad bill and it should not have passed," said Scott.

The Courier-Journal summarizes the local concerns:

Under the budget proposal released by Bevin this week, K-12 per-pupil funding would remain at its current level, but local school districts would have to pay a greater share of transportation and health insurance costs. Districts would also be forced to reduce their administrative costs over the next two fiscal years.

Scott said that the state should not be diverting resources to charter schools at a time when districts are already under financial stress. Instead, communities should work to improve the public schools they already have, she said.

These concerns mirror the typical talking points of school choice opponents around the country. This argument, in some states, has paralyzed the conversation. That will likely not be the case here. The bill filed to repeal the 2017 law is highly unlikely to go anywhere as Republicans, who typically support school choice, control both chambers in the legislature and the governor’s office. The bill amounts to little more than a symbolic protest.  

Given the fact charter schools are coming no matter what, Kentucky opponents to school choice would probably be better off working with lawmakers to come up with regulations and practices that reflect the landscape they want to see.

Read more about the Kentucky charter school bill and opposition here. (Courier-Journal)

See the full bill here.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

There Are No Good Arguments Against School Choice

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By Andrew Pillow

It is the nature of my job to entertain both sides of an argument. If I’m writing about a polarizing subject like universal healthcare, I have to write about the pros and cons of the government paying for health care. If I am writing about a political candidate, I have to give the reader the arguments for and against the candidate’s platform. I typically create a graphic organizer to help me group my thoughts in this way.

I sat down to write a school choice post. I began to jot down all the arguments for and against school choice and I came to a realization: There are no good arguments against school choice.

I know this is a pretty big claim to make, and I don’t make it lightly but it’s the honest truth. The reasons given to oppose school choice simply do not hold up to any type of serious scrutiny.

Sure, there are tons of reasons that school choice opponents cite, but all of these reasons fall into four categories.

  1. arguments against a certain school
  2. issues you could raise about any public schools
  3. funding issues
  4. lies

Let’s examine these categories more closely:

Arguments against a certain school

When you ask people to tell you why they are against school choice, 90% of them launch into a rant about a very specific charter school or some other anecdotal experience. While these experiences are valid, they should not be used as indictments against the school choice system as a whole because the idea of having options doesn’t preclude some of those options being bad… hence why it’s important to have options.

I work in a pretty good charter school. I work down the street from what is considered a pretty bad one. I’ve worked in one that kicked out too many students, and one that suspends less kids than the surrounding area. If someone has a problem with a specific school, they should feel free to choose another. That’s kind of the idea.

Issues you could raise about any public schools

A very popular tactic of school choice opponents is to drag up the near inexhaustible reservoir of problems facing inner-city schools and postulate that those obstacles are specific to only charter schools. You will see this tactic used in conjunction with poor performance, school discipline, and now even segregation.

Some charter schools may suffer from those problems, but they are not unique to charter schools. Traditional public schools are not only not immune from these problems, but in many cases, they created them.

Charter schools were a response to the poor academic performance of traditional public options and many charters still outperform traditional public schools today.

Public schools suspend and expel students at alarming rates. Particularly students of color.

School segregation was quite literally invented by the traditional public-school system, and though many would have you believe they left it behind in the 60s, segregation of public schools is coming back. In fact, in some places, it never left.

So, if these critiques are valid against traditional public schools, why have they become hallmarks of anti-school choice rhetoric?

Funding issues

Traditional public-school advocates often cite funding problems as the main reason they are against school choice. They say vouchers and charter schools take money away from public schools.

Most districts award money by headcount. So yes, if a student opts out of attending a traditional public school they no longer receive that money. That’s not taking money away. The public school is not entitled to money for a child they don’t teach. If that’s considered a problem then inner-city districts should turn their ire to the suburbs because they have been hemorrhaging students, and funding to the suburban districts in the form of white flight for years.

There are real problems left behind for under-enrolled schools in the inner city. School districts should do something about it too. Maybe it’s providing the money for infrastructure separately from the money for academics since the biggest problem for under-enrolled schools is building up-keep. Either way that’s a funding issue that could be fixed if the political will was there, but politicians would rather use funding problems as a weapon than fix the issue.

Lies

This is pretty self-explanatory. There are a number of lies floating around in regards to school choice especially on the local level.

Whether it’s framing charter schools as private schools when in fact they are public or continuing to tell people that all charter schools are for-profit when many of them are run by non-profits. There are too many lies to tackle here, but they are out there. If you are in the conversation, you’ve heard them.

I don’t know when the conversation about school choice will become less toxic, but for now, it’s important to stay diligent and keep school choice opponents honest.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

VIDEO: Howard Fuller on School choice and the liberation of low-income families

How does school choice work for low income families? 

Marquette professor, Howard Fuller talks about the importance school choice and options in general. 

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Don’t Criticize School Choice if You Won’t Send Your Kids to a Public School

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By Andrew Pillow

School choice, unfortunately, remains a controversial and divisive subject in education circles. There are a number of reasons for this. Some of them legitimate. Some of them not.

One of those not legitimate reasons comes from allowing people with no stake in the fight to frame the debate. Principal among these are the anti-school choice parents, that send their kids to private schools. There are no shortage of these types. They typically proudly proclaim themselves “pro-public” while omitting the fact that they send their own kids to private institutions. (By the way, this is where I feel the need to remind you that charter schools ARE public schools)

Let me be clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with sending your kids to private schools. As a matter of fact in many cases, and for many kids it is the best option. That is why people are fighting so hard to extend that option to everyone.

Now while there is nothing wrong with sending your kids to a private school there is something almost objectively wrong with sending your kids to a private school while simultaneously denying others that opportunity. This is one of those issues that appears fuzzy when we apply it to school choice but when you apply this logic to other areas of life it becomes transparently silly:

Imagine someone telling you that the public hospital that they refuse to send their family to, is good enough for you.

Imagine a distant politician telling you how great a crime-ridden public housing project is from behind the fence of their gated community.

Those aren’t even exaggerated comparisons. They represent exactly the same concept and idea that many of the anti-school choice zealots espouse: “Public options aren’t good enough for me… but they are good enough for y’all.”

This doesn’t make every single criticism that these people levy against school choice inaccurate. Nor does it make their voices less important. But it DOES make them less credible and it does shift the tone of the debate from community-based to outsider driven. (You know the same thing school choice advocates are accused of doing all the time.)

This is not an anti-public-school rant. The public school down the street from your house may be a safe, high-quality academic institution. But in the event that it is not, you deserve an opportunity to send your kids somewhere that is.

So when Matt Damon drops his next anti-school choice project and tells you that you should be comfortable with whatever public option you have in your neighborhood, remember that he’s not even comfortable with the public options that he has in his neighborhood and he sends his kids to private schools.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Indiana’s A Through F Rating System Remains Murky and Misleading

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By Andrew Pillow

Indiana has just released the school ratings for the 2016-2017 school year. The ratings are from A to F. A being a good rating, F being a poor rating. This year the State Board of Education is reporting a higher number of As.

The fact that more schools are receiving As can only be considered great news. However, what does receiving an A mean? For that matter, what does receiving an F mean? Well, there is an actual metric to determine the grades, but it isn’t user-friendly. It suffices to say that there are a few different metrics that schools can be judged on but the main two are performance and growth. 

Those two measures make sense to use, provided everyone is clear on how and when they are used but that is not the case. You see some schools are judged only on performance. Some schools are judged only on growth. Some schools are judged on growth, performance and everything in between. 

So to revisit the question from the second paragraph: What does an A really mean?

  • It can mean that you scored well on the state standardized tests.
  • It could mean you scored poorly on the standardized tests, but less poorly than you did the year before.
  • It could mean a combination of both those things or in the case of an F rated school, the lack thereof.

This type of system is problematic because these grades are public facing. Although information about how the grades are calculated is publicly available, it is unreasonable to expect stakeholders like families and students to know the ins and outs of how the grades are calculated. And, because most people would probably naturally define a “good school” as a school that scores well on the standardized tests, the A through F scale can be downright misleading.  

There are schools that will receive A ratings this year that will more than likely not receive them next year and that change will be due to the way their grade is calculated, not how the school is run or performed on exams.

Imagine yourself as a parent, enrolling your child in an A-ranked school only to watch it become an D or F rated school the next year. Not only would this come as a shock to the less informed parent, but one would imagine that they would be pretty mad as well. Parents may feel like they were lied to or misled. And considering the fact that the schools who received As based primarily on growth will likely not advertise that they may still have low scores on the standardized tests, said parents may have a pretty decent argument.

This is not to say that Indiana shouldn’t judge schools on growth. This is not to say Indiana shouldn’t judge schools on proficiency. However, we need a rating system that is consistent across the board so that parents can make informed decisions.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Indiana Should Use the $60M Award to Expand Access to Existing Charters

 By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Betsy DeVos) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Betsy DeVos) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Pillow

Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has awarded Indiana around $60 million in federal funds to expand charter schools. The funds will be dispersed over the next five years. The award was part of a larger grant package that included eight additional states. The grant will go towards replicating, expanding, planning and managing charter schools.

This award is an awesome development for school choice in Indiana. I’m sure charter school authorizers and lawmakers are already salivating at the mouth, thinking about how they will use the money. However, Indiana should prioritize using this money to expand access to charter schools as opposed to expanding the number of charter schools in general.

At first glance, expanding the number of charter schools and expanding access to charter schools probably sounds like the same thing, but that is not necessarily the case. There are some parts of Indiana where charter school options are limited that can probably benefit from more schools. But here in Indianapolis, charter schools are ubiquitous. There are so many charter schools that sometimes even good ones have trouble meeting their enrollment goals.

So, Indianapolis doesn’t need a whole lot more charter schools. Indianapolis needs increased access to the charter schools that it has.

One of the main access barriers to high-quality local charters is transportation. A few well-known charter schools don’t provide busing.  Some schools don’t offer transportation due to the nature of their school model. However, many charters concede they don’t provide transportation simply because it is expensive and they don’t get tax dollars for it like public schools do. One of the main rallying cries behind school choice is the idea that “where you live shouldn’t determine the quality of education you receive”. If a student can’t attend a high-quality school due to lack of transportation, then where they live is still dictating what kind of education they get. So that is something that should be considered.

The enrollment process in the past has been another barrier for families trying to attend charter schools. It remains unknown how the advent of Enroll Indy will mitigate this problem but in the past, different application types and deadlines have stopped families from attending a high-quality charter. If Enroll Indy is unable to fix that problem Indiana should definitely use a portion of the money to help manage charter school enrollment.

There some places that aren’t already saturated with schools where using this award to proliferate charter schools makes sense, but in Indianapolis, we have enough schools. It’s the schools that don’t have enough students. Because this city is one of the flagship models for school choice, officials should concentrate on making sure families are really able to take advantage of the offers that are available.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Indiana Moving Slowly in the Right Direction for Pre-K

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By Andrew Pillow

After years of complaints and debate Indiana is finally moving in the right direction for Pre-K. Albeit very slowly.

It was just announced Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K program will accept applicants from 10 additional counties. This will be in addition to the other counties that are already included in the On My Way Pre-K Program such as Marion County. The program is open to children who turn 4 by August 1 and come from a family 127% below the federal poverty line.

While this is something to celebrate, it is a far cry from the universal Pre-K system that early childhood education advocates envision. State funded Pre-K is still not available to every child in the state of Indiana. And, of those whom it is available to, it is not always accessible due to the application or transportation.

However, given the cost, difficulty and community partnerships it took to this get this far, people should be thankful. In a state that doesn’t even have compulsory kindergarten or mandate that districts offer full-day kindergarten one can only imagine how difficult it was to get funding for Pre-K and that is what people need to remember when looking at this plan. It’s not enough, it’s not universal, it’s a compromise and more than anyone would have told you they expected 4 or 5 years ago.

Now where do we go from here? Indiana has made incremental improvements on the program year over year. So what should they be shooting for?

In order to make Indiana’s Pre-K system more robust the following things need to happen:

1.       Make Pre-K available to every child

Right now, families need to be below a certain level of poverty to be eligible. However, the way poverty is measured is problematic. There are plenty of families in need that still should have access to Pre-K. Additionally, if Indiana is serious about the importance of early education they will make it universal for all families regardless of income.  

2.       Make Pre-K accessible

Transportation is a big issue. Because of the expense and complications that come with transporting young children there is no perfect answer either. However, sum districts seem to have figured it out and Indiana should emulate what they are doing.

3.       Make Pre-K high quality

Not all Pre-K programs are created equal. If the government is going to pay for it they need to make sure they are getting what they pay for. This starts with ensuring the quality of the Pre-K programs. Indiana does currently have a metric to do this called Paths to Quality.

Overall Indiana is getting there. However, the state definitely needs to prioritize moving quicker. While politicians are debating over funding and which counties should be added, thousands of 5 and 6 year old’s are matriculating to kindergarten without the basic skills they need to be successful.  

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Every Charter is Different So Find the One that Works for You

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By Andrew Pillow

Think about the most recent charter school criticism you have heard. What was it?

“Charter schools under perform academically.”

“Charter schools suspend and expel too many students.”

“Charter schools create segregation.”

Ignoring the fact all three of those criticisms could be levied against traditional public schools… all of those criticisms, if valid, would only apply to some charter schools, not all of them.

The statement “not all charter schools are the same” shouldn’t really be a controversial or polarizing opinion, but unfortunately in this divided political climate “school-choice” has become a four letter word and charters have become a de-facto boogeyman for school choice opponents.

Like all political boogeymen, charter schools have been reduced to one-dimensional tropes by their opponents. Even though there are over 6,900 charter schools in the United States, school-choice opponents often represent all of them by using the worst examples they can possibly find, which leads to a very predictable outcome: Misinformation.

They cite the standardized test scores of one underperforming charter school, and hold it up as an indictment of the entire school choice system even though many studies indicate charters in-fact outperform public schools.

They take a legitimate case of a charter school’s over use of suspensions and expulsions and postulate that this is a symptom of all charter schools. Even though that is not the case.

If you look hard enough, you will find a family with a story about how or why a certain school didn’t work out for them. There is a simple reason for this: Every school is not the right school for every child. That includes charters. Ironically this is the precise reason school choice is important. If families have choice, they can find the school that best fits their needs and desires. School choice opponents frequently use these anecdotes from parents as evidence in their narrative about why “all charter schools are bad” when the real narrative is “all schools are different and each family needs to find the one that works for them.”

For example, some parents criticize the lack of transportation service from charter schools. While this is a perfectly legit complaint, school choice opponents like to exalt that complaint without mentioning there are plenty of charter schools that DO provide transportation (In spite of the fact that the government doesn’t subsidize it like they do for public schools).

Some charter schools are not living up to the high academic expectations we should have for them and school choice advocates need to own that. MANY more are giving are students viable alternatives to failing public schools and school choice opponents shouldn’t leave that out of the conversation.

As a general rule of thumb, broad sweeping generalizations can only be wrong. We recognize this fact when we are talking about people. It’s time we accept it’s also the case when talking about schools.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

School Choice Opponents Ignore the Failings of Public Schools

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By Andrew Pillow

For whatever reason, the idea students and families should be able to have a choice about where they go to school remains controversial. Part of the reason this remains the case is because some school choice opponents exclusively cite evidence that supports their side and conveniently leave out or ignore evidence that doesn’t.

As a school choice advocate, I am perfectly comfortable saying charter schools and voucher systems are not a panacea. Not every charter school out performs its public-school equivalent, and not every voucher scheme serves the population it is supposed to. In order to achieve the best possible outcomes for students, school choice advocates need to take a look at what works and what doesn’t while holding charter schools to the same standards we hold public schools.

With that being said, traditional public-school advocates need to do this as well. If that is not being done, we are advocating for what’s best for adults and not what’s best for students.

Currently that is not what is happening.

If you frequent any of the traditional online educational forums these days you will see an army of anti-choice zealots decrying charters and school vouchers. They’ll post stories about the latest charter school scandal, or the results of some study that concludes charters are ineffective. They’ll parrot statistics about suspension and expulsion data. If you are really lucky you will get the “Charters exacerbate segregation” argument.

As if traditional public schools don’t have scandals.

As if hundreds of studies haven’t found inner city public schools to be ineffective.

As if public schools don’t have a well known track record of over suspending and expelling students.

As if inner city public schools are beacons of student body diversity.

Of-course none of the above are true. Which begs the question: Why are some people intentionally slanting evidence against school choice?

The answer: This debate is not about children and families. It’s about organizations and political ideologies.

Any time a debate is about those things objectivity flies out the window. The fact of the matter is that many public schools have been failing for a long time and they have had nobody to blame but themselves. So school choice policies have become a convenient “boogeyman” for traditional public-school zealots as most find it easier to point the finger outward than inward.

But pointing fingers is not what’s best for students and people in education should know that. After all, that’s what we tell our students every day.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.