Future of Schools

Senate budget, with deep cuts for some schools, could see a vote Wednesday

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lawmakers begin the 2018 session Jan. 3.

Deep funding cuts continue to loom for high poverty school districts as the Indiana Senate today made few changes to its budget plan, which is expected to get a vote Wednesday.

Democrats tried, but failed, to persuade their fellow senators to make changes to the next two-year Indiana budget today, including proposals to soften those cuts.

Separate budget plans, drawn up by Republican leaders of the House and Senate, would cost schools with mostly poor students and declining enrollment tens of millions of dollars over two years. In part that’s because both school funding plans change the way the state calculates how much extra money to give to districts with poor students who might start school academically behind their peers.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, offered five amendments before the full Senate, all of which failed in party-line votes, 40-10, some aiming to change the funding formula to help poor children. One of her proposals, for example, would have raised Kindergarten per-student funding, which has traditionally been less than that for other grades.

Phil Johnson, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said the full-day Kindergarten amendment was intended as a compromise between the House and Senate budgets and would help schools who saw major funding cuts. Tallian said no schools would be negatively affected by the change.

“The new school funding formula cut approximately $250 million,” Tallian said. “This amendment will put back $38 million in first year, $43 million in the second year, and it has this advantage: it gets a little extra money to nearly every school. There are a few schools that stay flat — there are no schools that lose by doing this.”

The Senate’s budget draft changes how the state would allocate that extra money for poor districts by changing the way poor children are counted. Under the Senate’s method, schools would get extra money for children who are in foster care or come from families receiving welfare or food stamps. That brings much less aid than what high poverty districts receive now.

But the Senate’s plan would phase in that change over five years, softening the blow for big urban districts like Indianapolis Public Schools. The House budget proposal would base poverty aid on the number of children who qualify for the federal free lunch program, which would cost IPS slightly more in lost aid.

IPS is slated to lose 6 percent in total state tuition aid by 2017 under the House’s version and  4.2 percent in total aid in the Senate’s plan. Suburban schools with growing enrollment generally end up with funding increases — IPS is the only district in Marion County to see cuts, while wealthy districts like Zionsville and Carmel see increases of about 10 percent under both plans.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, voted against the Kindergarten amendment, but he said he would consider the idea during a conference committee next week to work out differences in bills.

“We’ve tried to evaluate this, and we can’t quite decide which is the most equitable way to do this,” Kenley said. “So rather than pass this into the bill today, we would like to continue to work on this.

Tallian also raised concerns about a plan to eliminate a $4,800 cap for tax-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools while continuing a tax credit for voucher students that she said benefits mostly wealthy families. Both Republican budget plans include those provisions.

She proposed extending a $1,000 tax deduction to families with students in any public school, but that proposal also failed. The tax deduction currently applies only to families with children using vouchers or attending school at home. Tallian said it is unfair to poor families, who don’t have help with textbook costs and might also have to contribute to transportation costs.

“This is a question of fairness,” Tallian said. “If you are paying money to send your kid to school, why are we only making that tax deduction available to people who send their kids to private school, or who don’t send them to school at all but keep them at home?”

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. A meeting is scheduled at the school for 5 p.m. on Thursday to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding method for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators including district and charters school teachers to determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more. Schools also get federal funding on top of that. 

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations. It also did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money, instead outlining that conversation as a next step — and highlighting a potential pitfall that could arise.

“While outside of the scope of this current study, the study team feels it is important to highlight during the implementation of a new system that student and taxpayer equity will also need to be considered,” the study’s executive summary reads. “Ensuring that each district and charter has the ability to raise funds needed to meet all resource needs is critical to ensuring both an adequate and equitable school funding system.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: