Future of Schools

Report urges more expansion for tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Most private schools in Indiana, like Chatard Catholic High School in Indianapolis, have students paying tuition with help from state-funded vouchers or tax credits.

Indiana’s fast-growing scholarship tax credit program could serve more kids if the state makes changes to the law to give incentives for additional philanthropic dollars to support private school tuition, advocates argue in a new report.

The report was released last week by the Friedman Foundation, one of the nation’s leading private school voucher advocacy groups. It recommends raising the amount of money scholarship groups can contribute toward tuition, boosting how much donors can claim in tax benefits and expanding the types of services parents can spend the money on.

Foundation CEO Robert Enlow said the study was aimed at dispelling opponents arguments about tax credits he deemed unfair.

“We thought it was important to put out actual data and real data as opposed to opinions and thoughts,” Enlow said.

But Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and an opponent of tax credits for private school tuition, worries the program hurts public schools and an expansion could make things worse.

“If taxes aren’t being paid, what are students who attend public schools losing out on?” she said. “That’s where a lot of the public schools’ money comes from. We need to work harder to support our students instead of creating more programs that go around that.”

Most of the focus on public support for private schools in Indiana has been centered on the state’s high profile voucher program, which redirects state aid from public schools to pay private school tuition for low- and middle-income students. But sometimes overlooked is a companion tax credit program that also has a big impact.

Indiana’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program collects private donations to be used as scholarships for K-12 tuition by students whose families meet income guidelines. The program, which began in 2010, has awarded thousands of scholarships to Hoosier students. In fact, the number of scholarships awarded has jumped dramatically from 559 students in 2010 to 11,067 in 2014. About 10 percent of the 111,872 students attending private schools across the state are scholarship recipients.

Current “scholarship granting organizations,” which collect donations and distribute the scholarships in Indiana, include the Institute for Quality Education, Lutheran Scholarship Granting Organization of Indiana, Sagamore Institute Scholarships for Educational Choice and the School Scholarship Granting Organization of Northeast Indiana.

Enlow credits the rapid expansion to a more informed public. He said private schools are doing a better job of publicizing the program.

The expanded eligibility doesn’t hurt either, he said. The program used to be income based only, but has since expanded to allow parents of students assigned to a failing school to use it, as well as those enrolled in special education programs.

Tax credits are currently capped off at $7.5 million, which the Institute for Quality Education just reported was exhausted Tuesday. The Indiana General Assembly recently voted to increase the cap to $8.5 million in 2016 and $9.5 million in 2017, all of which can only be used on private school tuition. Donors currently receive a 50 percent tax credit.

But the report, which was compiled by the Cato Institute — a libertarian, pro-voucher think tank — argues the state should expand the program to even more families and allow for more donations.

It recommends expanding the law to allow the money raised to go to more than just tuition, such as for tutoring, home school curricula and education therapy. The report suggests increasing the total amount of tax credits available to $15 million, with a mechanism to raise it by another 20 percent if a donor nears that cap.

Another recommendation would raise the value of the tax credit for the donor from 50 percent to 75 percent of the contributed amount. Enlow said a lot more kids could be helped if those changes were made.

“The 50 percent credit is a damper on individual support,” Enlow said.

But Meredith wants to see proof the tax credits are making a difference first.

“They really ought to wait a bit and see what happens with the program as it is now before they jump into expanding it,” Meredith said.

Enlow said he hopes to see a bill in the next budget in 2017 to expand the program.


parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.