Getting an early start

Indiana House speaker calls for a big expansion of preschool support

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, (right) and Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, take the oath of office along with the rest of the House members during the annual Organization Day session to officially begin the 2017 legislative session.

More poor families who want help sending their children to preschool could have reason to rejoice next year.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma today announced that expanding preschool tuition scholarships would be one of his top priorities for the coming legislative session.

Other education priorities include a push to shift education dollars toward classroom expenses and away from school administrative and support services.

“We need to find a way to concentrate our education dollars in the classroom, where they are most effective with highly motivated teachers of high quality,” said Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican.

Bosma made education one of the centerpieces of his acceptance speech after being re-elected House speaker this afternoon during the General Assembly’s annual Organization Day. Lawmakers met for a short session to choose leaders and adopt basic rules before their work formally begins in January.

On preschool, Bosma called for expanding the preschool tuition vouchers that the state began as a pilot program in 2014. That $10 million program serves 1,585 kids in five counties, including Marion County, but demand for the program far exceeds availability.

Bosma is not alone in embracing the preschool expansion. Both the incoming governor, Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Board of Education and incoming state schools superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, have called for more kids to receive the free service.

That’s a change from a few years ago when Gov. Mike Pence had to make a hard push to convince skeptical fellow Republicans to support state-funded preschool programs. This year, Holcomb favors a slow, deliberate expansion to a few counties at a time but Bosma said he believes the benefits of preschool are proven and he wants to move faster.

“I’d like to double or triple the program,” he said. “I don’t need to be convinced. I’ve seen it first hand and many others have. Not everyone is of the same option, and we do have fiscal constraints in the coming session that are very real.”

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said his party also wants a faster expansion.

“I don’t really understand the hesitancy,” he said. “This state has been tiptoeing over hot coals on its way to pre-K. Let’s get it to the kids who need it. There are kids who need it in every county in Indiana.”

Bosma did not offer details on his claim that Indiana schools spend too much on administrative and support spending, nor did he outline any ideas for what changes should occur, saying lawmakers would figure that out during the session.

If there is money to shift, he said he wanted it to go to teachers to help make the profession more attractive to top college graduates.

“We need to continue to find ways to treat teaches as faculty rather than factory workers,” he said. “We’ve made progress on this but we need to do more. We need to free them from regulatory burdens and bureaucratic control to do the job they desire to do.”

Pelath said he wasn’t sure Bosma was right that spending on non-classroom supports was out of line, but he endorsed the need to pay teachers more.

“That requires careful analysis after which there could be some differences in interpretation,” he said. “But unambiguously we have to make sure teachers are fairly compensated for the market-based reason that you have to attract very good people to the profession.”

CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.