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.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.