School Choice

Big jump in voucher use for students who never tried public school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students using vouchers and from charter schools attended a rally for school choice at the Statehouse in 2015.

Indiana saw another year of steep growth in its private school voucher program, with more than 29,000 students using the program to attend private school now estimated to be costing taxpayers more than $116 million.

That’s an increase in participation of nearly 50 percent during this past year.

Students using the voucher program — the second largest and fastest-growing of its kind in the nation — now account for 2.6 percent of Indiana’s school system, according to the latest annual report released Monday by the Indiana Department of Education.

Vouchers, billed by the state as “choice scholarships,” funnel tax dollars to support student tuition at private schools. The program is controversial: Proponents say the program expands quality options for poor children, and opponents say the state shouldn’t use tax dollars to pay for religious education while draining the coffers of public schools.

Hoosiers for Quality Education President Betsy Wiley, whose organization hosted a rally at the Statehouse last week supporting school choice, cheered the news.

“We are encouraged by this growth and what it means for families who want more options for their children, but there is still more to be done,” Wiley said. “Over 100,000 students are attending an underperforming school in our state. We believe we can do better. Parents must be provided with more high-quality school options.”

But the Indiana State Teachers Association said it was concerned about the growing rolls of students using vouchers who never previously attended a public school. This year roughly 50 percent of students using vouchers previously attended a public school; last year 61 percent of students did, stoking fears that the program is subsidizing private school tuition for families who already planned to do so.

“The voucher program was originally sold to Hoosiers as an alternative for low income families to use if their schools were failing,” ISTA President Teresa Meredith said. “The most expansive voucher program in America has become an entitlement program which in large part, now benefits middle class families who always intended to send their children to private (mostly religious) schools and taxpayers are footing the growing bill.”

Indiana’s voucher program has seen steep growth each year since it started in 2011-12 with nearly 4,000 students and 241 schools. It more than doubled in size the second year of the program to 9,000 students and continued that speed last year when it grew to nearly 20,000 students.

Several rules placed on the program at its infancy have since relaxed, including the enrollment cap in the first two years and a requirement that students must first try out a public school in their neighborhood before they used a scholarship. New rules last year also allowed siblings and students qualifying for special education services to use vouchers.

The program has also become less racially diverse over time. This year 61 percent of students using vouchers are white, compared with 46 percent when it started. Just 14 percent of the students are black this year, compared with 24 percent in 2011-12. (Overall, 71 percent of Indiana students are white. About 12 percent are black.)

The program’s use in suburban areas also is rising slightly, with 21 percent of voucher families living in suburban areas this year compared with just 16 percent three years ago.

(Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Indiana no longer has the largest state voucher program. Wisconsin has a larger program as of December 2014.)

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.