Follow the money

Indiana could see a push to stash state money in school choice ‘savings accounts’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

A plan that would allow families direct access to their child’s state education dollars to use for school-related expenses could be gaining traction in Indiana.

Two bills proposed in the Indiana General Assembly last year would’ve set up “education savings accounts” — focused on K-12 and unrelated to 529 college savings plans — that would create what some education reform advocates call “universal school choice.” The proposal would direct state money not through school channels, but deposit it into an account parents could freely access.

Supporters of the idea argue it provides more options to families to choose how to best educate their children. But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.

The idea is becoming more popular in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. So far, Arizona’s and Nevada’s programs are the most expansive, applying to more than just students with special needs.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit lobbying group that pairs legislators and business owners together to write model legislation, highlighted the education savings accounts in their yearly summer conference, held in Indianapolis last week.

ALEC, strongly opposed by teachers unions and school choice critics, has considerable influence in Indiana, with several key lawmakers participating in the group and elements of the group’s model laws inspiring some of Indiana’s education reforms in recent years.

The group also admires and has sought to promote Indiana’s legislative work on education, even naming its model legislation for school choice programs the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

Neither Indiana bills was actively considered last year, but Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, and Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who serve as chairmen of the Senate and House education committees, said earlier this year that they were open to the ideas in the future. Indiana lawmakers must write a new budget in 2017. Legislation dealing with state funding is much more likely to be heard and move forward in budget years.

“It’s something we need to talk about,” Behning told Chalkbeat in January. “It’s worthy to look at options. It wouldn’t change the landscape significantly because we already have a lot of choice, it’s just the way we distribute it a little differently.”

It’s true that Indiana has lots of school choice options now. About 30,000 students use public money to pay private school tuition through the voucher program, and more than 37,000 attended public charter schools.

But the plans proposed by lawmakers last year could allow for more state education dollars to be controlled directly by parents than under the voucher or charter school systems. The bills also would make families with higher incomes eligible to direct their state education dollars somewhere other than their local public schools. In 2016-17, the base per-student aid each school district will receive is $5,088.

Joel Hand, with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said the programs are too unregulated and pose a threat to taxpayers and public schools.

“There’s nothing there to protect the taxpayer that their tax dollars are really going to be used for that intended purpose,” Hand said at an ICPE presentation earlier this summer. “All these things would work to drain significant funds from public schools.”

Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond earlier this year pushed a bill that was never considered by lawmakers in Senate Bill 397, which would’ve only allowed families with students who have special needs to participate in an education savings account program. That bill would not have limited the family income of participants.

House Bill 1311, which was authored by Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, but also was never considered, would’ve set up a much more expansive program with similarities to a model bill crafted by ALEC. It would have allowed all families to sign up to receive between 70 and 100 percent of the basic state aid amount set aside for each child’s public education if they earn no more than $97,000 for a family of four.

That is much more, for example, than what families can receive through Indiana’s private school tuition voucher program.

Under the voucher program, a family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. A family earning up to $89,725 per year is eligible for half the state aid their district would receive.

The House bill would’ve allowed families to spend the state money on private school tuition but also on lots of other things, such as curricular materials, exam fees (for Advanced Placement and other tests), services for students with disabilities or even college tuition. The flexibility would be a particular boon to families who homeschool their children.

Hand and his colleague at ICPE, Vic Smith, said the idea for K-12 education savings accounts would lead to too large an expansion of the state’s voucher program and divert too much funding from existing public schools risk wasting tax money without proper oversight.

“This work to bring us vouchers over the past several years has warmed us up for this,” Smith said. “We think that’s just going down the wrong road.”

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”