Early Education

Senate panel drops Pence-backed preschool program

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.

One of Gov. Mike Pence’s top legislative priorities, a preschool pilot program, appears to have been stymied for 2014.

The program that would have been created by House Bill 1004 was set aside today by the Senate Education Committee, which preferred to hand the idea off to a legislative summer committee for more study.

The rewritten bill, with the pilot program removed and language creating the study committee inserted, passed the committee 9-0.

“This is an effort to put this suggested program into a form where it can actually be successful and do what it needs to do,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who proposed the amendment to move the issue to a study committee. “I think this is a logical step to take.”

Kara Brooks, a spokesman for Pence, suggested in a statement he was not giving up on the idea of establishing state support for preschool.

“Gov. Pence believes every child deserves to start school ready to learn, and he believes now is the time for a voluntary pre-K program to help Indiana’s low-income kids,” she said. “The governor looks forward to continuing to work with members of the General Assembly to advance this important initiative.”

House Bill 1004 has enjoyed wide support in the House, which last month passed it 87-9. It’s possible the pilot program could resurface as an amendment when the bill is considered on the Senate floor or in conference committee to resolve differences with the version passed by the House. It could also be added to another education bill.

Senators on the education committee have long been hesitant about launching any state-funded preschool program. Last year, the same committee scuttled a similar proposal for a pilot program, reworking that bill into a small grant program. Indiana is one of nine states that spends no state money for direct aid to children to attend preschool.

But this year state aid for preschool got a strong push from Pence. The governor made his first appearance of his 13-month tenure to testify for a bill to try to persuade the committee to allow the full Senate to vote on the bill.

With high quality preschool, children living in poverty have a better chance to succeed in school and life, Pence said in his testimony. Without preschool, they can fall behind in school, putting them at risk for dropping out or worse.

“It’s not that they are not willing and bright,” he told the committee in his testimony. “As a parent and as your governor, I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”

Pence made concessions to try to assuage concerns from Kenley and others about the potential costs of the program. The bill was a scaled down version of his original proposal. It would have provided tuition support to about 1,000 low income children in five counties. The program also was constructed so it would cost no money until after the next biennial budget was created in 2015, a key concern of Senate Republicans.

Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation estimates the program would cost about $10.6 million when fully implemented. Start up costs in 2015 would be about $650,000 with the first children enrolling in 2016.

Kenley listed 10 questions he hoped the study committee would answer. Key among them was whether Indiana could get flexibility from the federal government to use federal money to fund the program without tapping state money. Federal funds currently support Head Start and other preschool programs for low income families in Indiana.

“Federal law allows for waivers to be secured by states,” Kenley said. “President Obama says he’s in favor of preschool education. We are hoping Indiana can go to the White House and Washington. If they would let us use the money that is already there we can have a pretty significant program developed here without using those dollars.”

The proposed summer study committee’s to do list

An amendment to House bill 1004 offered by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and supported by the Senate Education Committee, removed the preschool pilot program backed by Gov. Mike Pence and inserted language to create a summer study committee. The amendment detailed 10 areas Kenley asked for the committee to study:

-The feasibility of Indiana obtaining a block grant and waiver under the federal Head Start program, possibly to redirect money from Head Start for preschool vouchers such as was proposed in House Bill 1004 or an alternative program.

-The feasibility of obtaining a Child Care Development Block Grant or other federal funds to pay for Indiana preschool programs.

-The options for funding preschool or early learning programs through partnerships with business, philanthropic or communities.

-Whether other states have developed rigorous accountability standards for preschool programs.

-Parental involvement opportunities to prepare children for school outside of a formal preschool program, such as promoting the benefits of reading to children.

-Opportunities to equip parents with skills needed to improve their ability to contribute to the education of their children prior to kindergarten.

-The economic benefits of preschool.

-The appropriate state agency or entity to develop and oversee preschool accountability standards.

-The appropriate income standard to use to determine eligibility for tuition assistance from the state for preschool.

-Opportunities to partner with an investment group or entity to establish an investment fund or vehicle to finance preschool in Indiana.

New Arrivals

Advocates decry Fariña’s explanation of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

The city pointed out that combining current and former English Language Learner graduation rates, 57 more students graduated this year. Fariña also said that while she is working to help more English learners graduate, it is harder for students to earn a diploma if they start off years behind.

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.