Early Education

Kenley: Costs may scuttle most of Pence's 2014 education agenda

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Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Luke Kenley

Luke Kenley, the powerful chairman of the Indiana Senate’s appropriations committee, said Wednesday he doubts potentially costly proposals from Gov. Mike Pence to offer preschool tuition vouchers to low income families, boost charter schools or aid teacher innovation can be enacted before 2015.

“I don’t see us doing anything in 2014 on these issues,” Kenley, R-Indianapolis, said in an interview. “If you want to have a fair sense of fiscal discipline and evaluate any program, it has to be done in the context of the rest of the budget.”

Kenley said all education priorities — not just Pence’s proposals but also annual costs like aid to school districts — should be weighed against each other at the same time and compared to the available revenue. Then choices could be made about what matters most when everything could be judged equally.

The time for that is the next budget year, 2015, unless Pence wants to also propose a way to fund his education plans, Kenley said.

“We can’t start down the path of funding special projects unless someone wants to come up with a tax or a special revenue source,” he said.

At a speech in Corydon Tuesday, Pence called for preschool vouchers for 40,000 low income children, a salary stipend for teachers who change jobs to work in troubled schools, grants for teacher innovation and state-paid reimbursement to teachers for classroom supplies.

Pence does not want to wait, especially on prekindergarten programs, according to a spokeswoman.

“Governor Pence and his staff are continuing the important conversation that started in the last legislative session regarding the design of a pre-K strategy that will serve the most vulnerable Hoosier students, and we want to get those programs started as soon as possible,” Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said.  “Authorizing pre-K in the coming session will allow enough lead time for programs to be in place for the 2015-2016 school year.”

In Tuesday’s speech, Pence also endorsed an expansion of drop out recovery charter schools, a controversial issue that Kenley spearheaded an effort to address earlier this year. Charter schools for dropouts, often adults, run by Goodwill Industries and Christel House Academies have earned accolades for helping students finish school and get jobs but plans for a big expansion of the schools around the state worried lawmakers.

As an interim solution, Kenley and other lawmakers engineered a set aside of cash for the existing schools but also capped their growth until there was further study of how to pay for them.

With an expansion of dropout recovery schools added to his other education proposals, potential new costs to the state for Pence’s total education agenda could easily exceed $100 million if his ideas were all enacted. Because Indiana’s biennial budget is forged by the legislature in odd-numbered years, new programs created in even-year “short” sessions may have to wait a year for implementation until funding is allocated in the next budget.

The Senate has been a stumbling block over the fiscal impact of education bills in the past, notably earlier this year when a preschool pilot program, backed by the House, was redesigned and scaled down. Indiana’s most recent tax collections also came in under projections, prompting Pence to order the state plane sold and instituting cuts in higher education and raising questions about the viability of new spending programs.

Pence acknowledged Tuesday that his education agenda was a starting point for talks with the legislature, but emphasized the state was fiscally strong overall and he believed creative solutions could be found to put programs in place in 2014. He also told reporters afterwards he had personally briefed Kenley on his education plans.

Kenley said when he and the governor spoke, they agreed more often about education than not.

“We had a good conversation,” he said. “I agreed with him these are all worthwhile things to take a look at. I think he’s trying to think real hard about what the next steps are in education.”

 

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

Field trip

Here’s what Superintendent Hopson told state lawmakers in Nashville about Memphis schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits in the halls of Legislation Plaza Tuesday after speaking before a legislative committee at the State Capitol.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson came to Nashville on Tuesday seeking to break the stigma and stereotypes of Memphis schools, as well as to build better relationships with state lawmakers.

He left calling his time in the State Capitol “a good first step.”

“Oftentimes, the discussion around Shelby County is somewhat negative. And we certainly have a long way to go,” Hopson told legislators on two House education committees. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re doing everything right, but there are some things to be proud of.”

His presentation came as lawmakers begin to review legislation that could have a major impact on Memphis schools. Lawmakers are considering two private tuition voucher bills, one of which would target Memphis as a pilot. Leaders of Shelby County Schools vehemently oppose both proposals.

Lawmakers also will consider several bills that would change how Tennessee addresses its lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis. The State Department of Education backs those bills, which are part of Tennessee’s proposed education plan under the new federal education law.

Hopson joined school board members and other district officials in Nashville as part of the Tennessee School Boards Association Day on the Hill.

He began his presentation promising to do a better job of telling the story of Memphis schools and working with legislators to improve education in Tennessee.

Hopson then cited the district’s growth in math and literacy in 2015, the latest available testing data for all schools, as well as highlighting a number of high-performing schools and the district’s turnaround work through its Innovation Zone.

Hopson noted the poverty rate in Memphis — 40,000 students live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year — and its affect on education of students. He also appealed to the Christian faith professed by many state lawmakers.

“When you think about faith, the word compassion comes to mind,” Hopson said. “In my mind, compassion is: You see a need, you’re moved by that need, and then you act on that need.”

He went on.

“Our district is so unique because we have suffocating poverty that many of our kids live in. And if you just think about that for a minute — what that would be like to live in a house with five, six, seven people on 200 bucks a week — … I mean, it just creates really significant challenges because kids are not always prepared to show up to school ready to learn.”

Poverty is “not an excuse” for poor performance in schools, he continued. “But I think it is important when you think about our school district and some of the challenges we have to just take a moment and think about the population that we serve,” Hopson said.

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s presentation was cut short after just 10 minutes, following Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s remarks on school turnaround work that went long. He said later that he wanted to talk more about the challenges faced by Memphis schools, many of which are priority schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’ve got kids with severe, severe social-emotional needs,” he said of the state’s largest school system. “And absent a strategic attempt to address those needs, we’re not going to ever see the progress in accelerated fashion we want to see. It is what it is. I hope they heard that.”