Funding & Finance

State budget debate: Should charter schools get extra cash?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A new charter high school is planned for the East side of Indianapolis.

In most cases, Indiana charter schools draw money from fewer sources and generally get less aid per student then traditional public schools.

But the question for the Senate Appropriations Committee today was whether that was fair or if they should get a financial boost in the state’s next two-year budget.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools do not receive local property tax dollars from the state to pay for school buildings and busing. Proponents of charter schools argue they get less money to spend on educating students because some of those dollars must fill the gap for costs outside the classroom. They want the legislature to back Gov. Mike Pence’s proposal to boost charter school state aid by $1,500 per student.

“Traditional public schools spend local dollars on capital, which frees up general fund revenue to spend on teachers and classrooms,” said Chad Timmerman, Pence’s director of education policy. “Charters have to swallow (capital costs) as pure overhead.”

But critics of the idea say charters already get their own special funds that traditional schools can’t tap. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said if the concern is the need for charter schools to have capital dollars to support building purchase, rental or maintenance, extra aid should be focused on that problem.

“I know the conversation is about the $1,500 increase to charters schools, and I know that one of the reasons is for the capital piece, but I have not heard the $1,500 added to that would just be for capital,” she said. “I don’t feel the data shows that public charters should receive more tuition dollars to use as they wish.”

Ritz said charter schools have the same access to state and federal dollars as public schools, plus specific charter school grants that could provide up to three years of extra aid.

Others argued that the cost for adding $1,500 per student to charter schools — estimated at $90 million — was too high. The governor has proposed a total increase to the state’s education spending of about $200 million.

Over a decade, Indiana has seen charter schools grow quickly. Nearly 80 charter schools are now operating statewide, and some critics say fear that they are beginning to drain significant dollars from traditional public schools.

But Jon Hage, CEO of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, was among those who argued the state’s lower funding for charter schools discourages some high quality national networks from bringing more good charter schools to Indiana. CSUSA operates three former Indianapolis Public Schools under a contract with the state and wants to open charter schools here too.

But committee chairman Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, asked if the charter schools Indiana already has should first prove they can raise student test scores before more funding is added or efforts are made to attract new charter school networks.

“We have an awful lot of charter schools authorized by an awful lot of different people,” he said. “If we’re going to dedicate any additional funds to charter schools, I think the committee needs to be thinking about what those standards outght to be before we go ahead and decide to do that.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”