Future of Schools

Senate budget draft favors wealthy districts, but has fewer cuts for poor schools

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

The Indiana Senate’s proposed budget would boost funding for education overall, much like the draft from the House, but it attempts to do so while ensuring urban schools won’t be hit as hard because of declining enrollment, lawmakers said.

In the draft released today, Indianapolis Public Schools, slated to lose 6 percent in total state tuition aid by 2017 under the House’s version, would lose 4.2 percent in total aid in the Senate’s plan. That change is largely because of a shift in how the Senate proposes the state allocate extra money to students from low-income families who might start school academically behind their peers.

Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, said students would now qualify for the extra money, determined by a poverty calculation known as the complexity index, if they also qualify for welfare, food stamps or are in foster care. Under the House’s plan, students qualify if they come from families poor enough to receive free lunch.

Mishler said his method would be phased in over five years and give a little more money to schools than the House’s would. Urban schools seeing declining enrollment, like IPS, would still lose money, but not quite as much, and it would be spread over a longer period of time so they can better adjust.

Wealthier schools, such as those in Zionsville and Carmel, still gain funding because of their growing populations. Zionsville would see a 9.2 percent increase in total state aid, and Carmel would receive 9.5 percent.

“If you take the number that the House spent for the complexity index in the first year, I think we raise it about $30 million, and in the second year, about $50 million,” Mishler said. “So it’s fairly close in the total dollar amount, it just changes the way we distribute it a little bit.”

Wealthy schools in typically suburban areas have argued they deserve more funding to support their students because they often produce the state’s best test scores. But poorer schools, which tend to be in heavily urban or rural areas, say they need the extra funding to educate children from poor families who might start out behind.

Like in the House’s plan, all Marion County schools besides IPS see increases in total state aid by 2017, with Beech Grove gaining the most at 9.1 percent and Franklin Township coming in second at 7 percent.

Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he, like his fellow Republican legislators, focused the budget on education, proposing a $31.5 billion two-year budget with a $466 million increase in K-12 funding over that time. That means a 2.3 percent increase in 2016 and a 2.3 percent increase in 2017.

“Speaker Bosma ran his campaign on this being a year of education, the governor said this is the year of education,” Kenley said. “We kind of are drilling back down on that primarily, and most of the money we are spending is going in those areas.”

The Senate’s budget also increases the basic tuition amount for each student, or the “foundation level,”  to $4,943 in 2016 and $5,052 in 2017 — slightly less than what the House proposed. The House would up K-12 funding by $469 million from 2015 to 2017, with a basic aid amount of $4,984 in 2016 and $5,105 in 2017.

House budget leader Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said both budgets are very close in dollar amounts, and both houses have goals to serve both wealthy and poor schools, though they go about it in slightly different ways through the complexity index.

“I think we both have the same philosophical goals that we want to substantially increase the foundation,” Brown said. “And they do that, as well as our budget does that.”

The Senate draft also differs from the House and governor’s plan in that it includes no additional funding for charter schools. Kenley said it was too soon to make decisions about such a large sum of money. Charter school laws are too lax, and there’s no way to guarantee a school, for example, couldn’t collect that additional aid and then close the next year and take it for profit, he said.

“I think a summer study committee … is a way to get all this stuff straightened out and come back with a much better product,” Kenley said. “Because it’s going to cost money, and it could be big dollars.”

For the state’s ISTEP test, the Senate set aside $71.6 million over two years — higher than in the past, but less than what has been projected recently for proposals by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana State Board of Education. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • $16.7 million per year for English and Math ISTEP tests in grades 3-10 (not ninth), social studies in grades five and seven, and science in grades 4, 6 and 10.
  • $3.35 million per year for the third-grade reading test, IREAD.
  • $3.75 million per year for the high school end of course exams in English 10 and Algebra 1.
  • An additional $12 million per year for tests districts can choose to use to measure student progress and practice ISTEP skills.

Kenley said the costs come straight from British-based testing company Pearson’s proposal to the state. Pearson was chosen last month to write next year’s ISTEP, replacing California-based CTB/Mcgraw-Hill. Kenley said this is a compromise between the state board, lawmakers and Ritz that gives schools the option of what kinds of practice exams they want to use to measure progress while also reducing cost.

“You’ve got to start somewhere to get this resolved,” Kenley said. “And I think it’s gotten to the point where the legislature is going to have to decide almost.”

But that doesn’t mean Kenley has abandoned plans to push for Senate Bill 566, now heavily amended but which originally called for the state to drop efforts to write a new ISTEP and use a test other states already use. The bill also encompasses ideas for upping teacher pay, which is why Kenley left a $200 teacher tax credit bill out of the budget as well.

“We thought the that the teacher tax credit was kind of a backhanded way supposedly of helping them,” Kenley said. “It would not really alleviate the problem in the long run.”

Other school funding changes the Senate’s budget proposal would make include:

  • $11 million is set aside for English language learners, which is about twice as much as in the current budget.
  • $40 million would be used for teacher performance grants, an increase of $10 million.
  • A $4,800 cap on vouchers for students in grades 1-8 is removed.
  • The bill would dissolve the state’s Education Roundtable, a group of leaders from state education, business, government and local communities.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”