School Finance

Indiana charter schools miss out on funding formula boost for English learners

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Fourth grade instructional aid Henry Velasquez works with students at Enlace Academy. More than half of the school's students are English learners.

In the new budget passed by the Indiana General Assembly this year, school districts where English language learners make up at least 25 percent of enrollment can qualify for extra state aid.

That is, unless they’re a charter school. And it just so happens that a handful of charter schools do serve especially large shares of students still learning to speak English.

Lawmakers doubled to $11 million an annual grant that supports English learners across the state, but they included a bonus for places where that challenge was the greatest with an added provision that increases funding through the state’s poverty aid formula.

But that increase is only available to traditional public school districts. Only two qualify — Goshen Community Schools and West Noble schools, both in Northeast Indiana.

Yet there are state charter schools, including at least three in Indianapolis and one in East Chicago, that would get those extra funds, too, if lawmakers hadn’t left them out.

Carey Dahncke, the director for the Christel House Academies, said the news came as a surprise. He didn’t realize until long after the budget bill was signed by the governor that his schools wouldn’t see that extra support.

Christel House Academy South had an English learner enrollment of 25.2 percent in 2014-15 and is planning for about 29 percent for the coming school year, Dahncke said.

“It’s abundantly clear it was never intended for a charter school to get that funding,” Dahncke said. “For us it was really perplexing because we are the type of school they were trying to protect.”

Charter schools share language challenges, but not extra money

Lawmakers argue the bill’s language wasn’t intended to exclude charter schools at all.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said Goshen and West Noble came to the legislature and said they were struggling to provide for students. They added the extra money to help those districts, he said.

“It didn’t have anything to do with something as favoring traditional against charters,” Kenley said. “It had more to do with trying to identify those two schools the best way we could.”

But in emails with the Indiana Department of Education, Jeremy Williams, superintendent of the Lighthouse charter schools in East Chicago with 29.3 percent of students learning English, said it was clear to him why his schools weren’t included.

“The added weighting is specifically listed for public school corporations and explicitly excludes charters in the state code for this,” Nathan Williamson, with the education department’s English learning office, said in an email.

Goshen’s enrollment is about 29 percent English learners, while West Noble’s is 31.5 percent. Kenley said when the districts came forward, legislators couldn’t identify any other public schools — charter or traditional — that met the criteria.

“There are not charter schools that we know of, or knew of at that time, that have 25 percent ELL,” Kenley said. “If you found a school where that was true, we were not aware of it at the time.”

Across the city, other charter schools that meet or are just on the cusp of meeting the 25 percent mark for English-learner enrollment include Enlace Academy at 57 percent and Imagine Indiana Life Science West at 24 percent.

By comparison, English learners make up about 15 percent of total enrollment at Indianapolis Public Schools, while Perry Township has about 22 percent. Individual schools come a bit closer — IPS School 74 enrolls almost 45 percent English learners, the same as Perry Township’s Southport Elementary School.

The additional formula funding is an experiment for now, Kenley said, and he hopes to learn whether it makes a different in helping the schools better serve their students learning English in the future.

But both Dahncke and Williams said their schools face the same challenges and should have been included.

“They basically are saying that our kids are less worthy of having funding provided for ELL services than a child who chooses to remain in a traditional public school,” Williams said.

Funding drops, but costs stay the same

Dahncke estimates that if Christel House South had been allowed to qualify for the extra state aid, it would equate to an extra $184 per-student, or more than $115,000.

The school also will see less extra poverty aid under the state’s new formula. Going forward, the state determines extra aid based on how many students receive food stamps or welfare rather than the prior method, which was calculated based on the percentage of students who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

That’s a significant challenge for a school like Christel House, where Dahncke said there are many families who are undocumented, and therefore aren’t eligible for those state benefits. Thus, he said, the school’s enrollment remains at about the same level of need, but fewer students qualify for benefits, so the school ultimately loses needed funding.

“We’re getting less funding here than we had previously,” he said. “Our population hasn’t changed. We have same number of poor students and families prior to that, just a less percentage that qualify for (food stamps or welfare).”

From 2015 to 2017, Dahncke said the school’s state aid is projected to drop steeply by about $1,000 per student. The same state data shows the school’s percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch basically unchanged at about 91 percent.

If they had access to the extra funding for English learners, Dahncke said he’d probably use it to hire teachers. The school has struggled to find licensed teachers with English language skills as well as bilingual skills. Right now, the English language learning staff at Christel House South is four — two unlicensed aides and two licensed teachers.

“It’s been a fairly lean program,” Dahncke said. “So we’ll just stay the course. If we had additional funding, we’d hire more teachers, and that’s what we need.”

Williams and Dahncke said that when they don’t get the additional dollars they need for programs such as English learning, they have to pull money from their general funds. Those funds are primarily used for paying for teachers’ salaries and classroom materials, but charter schools usually have to spread the money further to compensate for the fact that they don’t receive property tax dollars to support building and transportation costs.

“Even if it’s 50 cents, it’s ethically wrong to me that our kids don’t have access to that,” Williams said. “Every cent counts.”

funding dance

Indiana to tap reserves to free up $140M for teacher pay, Holcomb promises

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Governor-Elect Eric Holcomb speaks to Republican supporters at an Election night event.

Indiana plans to free up $140 million over two years for schools with the goal of increasing teacher pay, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

The state will tap into its $2 billion in reserves to pay down a pension liability for schools, Holcomb said, reducing schools’ expenses so more money could go to educators.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” Holcomb said.

He said he hoped schools would use the savings to increase teacher salaries. Lawmakers said after the speech that they would look for ways to make sure local districts direct more dollars to teachers.

The freed-up funding would equate to relatively small raises for Indiana’s roughly 70,000 public school teachers. In a bill seeking designated funds for teacher pay, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, estimated it would cost $315 million to raise educators’ salaries by 5 percent over two years.

The move to find the money to increase teacher pay comes after education leaders raised concerns over not having earmarked dollars. Holcomb previously suggested that schools use their overall funding, proposed to increase by 2 percent each year, for teachers’ salaries. Other Republican lawmakers have also proposed increasing teacher pay by reducing school budgets in other areas.

Still, the $140 million would come from reduced expenses, not a new influx of state dollars. Lawmakers would still have to approve the move.

“Personally, I think it’s a wise use of surplus,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles and large-scale teacher demonstrations in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Indiana has made addressing teacher pay a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Indiana ranks 18th highest in the nation for teachers salaries adjusted for cost of living, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research — leading some to fear teachers will flee to higher-paying states.

But while the issue has easily won bipartisan support and united unlikely allies, it has proved more difficult to find a solution — namely, the money — that satisfies educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s too early to pick a number,” Bosma said, though both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed after the speech that the $140 million — while a “creative” approach — wasn’t enough.

“We can do that this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We can find a way to give an increase in teacher pay this year. We don’t have to kick the can down the road. We don’t have to say, oh, let’s turn it back over to the local school districts and let them find the money.”

But a meaningful solution could take time: Holcomb also announced Tuesday night the formation of a commission to study teacher compensation and search for ways to improve salaries, with the goal of proposing action in 2021. Business leader Michael L. Smith, an investment fund co-founder and retired Anthem executive, will lead the commission.

“Teachers deserve compensation that reflects one of the most honorable, critical and challenging occupations in the state,” tweeted Lawrence Township teacher Tamara Markey, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, who was among community leaders invited by House Republicans to provide social media commentary on the speech.

Holcomb’s State of the State speech also emphasized workforce development, including preparing high school students for careers. He introduced Mary Roberson, superintendent of Perry Central Community Schools, to tout the district’s partnerships with local manufacturers to give students hands-on training.

“A strong economy depends on a world-class workforce,” Holcomb said. “That workforce depends on a great education. A great education depends on great teachers.”

protest prep

Los Angeles teachers went on strike Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

Teachers, retired teachers and parents show their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.

Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.

What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?

Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”

Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?

Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

What are the union and the district really fighting about?

The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:

Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. …

Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.

What about charter schools?

Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.

The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.

The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)

These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.

But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.

Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.

The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)

As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.

What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?

As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:

Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

What will the political ramifications of the strike be?

That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.

A few prominent elected officials have also weighed in supporting teachers, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna — though most national Democrats have been silent.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.

“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”