School choice

It started with vouchers and charter schools. Now Indiana’s exploring more ways for kids to learn outside traditional public schools.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Through its voucher and charter school programs, Indiana lawmakers have for years embraced strategies to promote school choice. Now, a new proposal that would let kids take classes outside their public schools could expand those efforts even further.

The program, which is already gaining attention nationally for being at the forefront of school choice strategies, is making its Indiana debut in recently filed House Bill 1007, authored by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero.

The bill lays out the basics of what looks kind of like a voucher program, where students can use public dollars to pay for outside schooling — one course at a time. The “course access” program would allow students to choose certain classes to take outside their public school, such as an advanced physics course, Behning said. Then, those course providers would get a cut of a school or district’s state funding.

So far, there are no specifics on who providers might be, but Behning said they could also include public schools that have online or distance learning programs set up.

“It really makes sense when you talk about some of the smaller districts we have,” said Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman. “Even in some of our urban districts, with some of the shortages we have, It makes sense to have some availability.”

Advocates, such as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said in a 2014 report that it levels the playing field between students, citing that students from low-income families, those who attend rural schools or minority students might have fewer opportunities than their wealthier urban or suburban counterparts.

But critics oppose the program for many of the same reasons they oppose a voucher program. The programs can funnel money away from public schools, typically taking a cut of a school’s state tuition dollars to pay whomever provides the outside classes. In some states, that has been for-profit education providers and online schools.

Online schools across Indiana and the United States have failed to demonstrate widespread academic achievement, but they remain a choice that a growing number of Indiana students and students across the country are turning to.

Under Indiana’s proposed bill, the Indiana Department of Education would be responsible for creating a list of classes for the program by June 30, 2018. A provider could be any one that offers these courses, through any method, including online instruction.

A course tuition fee would also need to be determined. Behning said it’s too early yet to say how much that fee might be, but according to state data, Utah districts paid providers between $200 and $350 per course in 2015 depending on the class being offered.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she already knows of districts that can engage in partnerships with other types of educational providers without this legislation.

“It sounds like they are creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist if there is in fact a way for schools to already do something like this,” Meredith said.

Meredith also worries that by encouraging schools and districts to go to outside providers, it could exacerbate the teacher shortage. There’s little need to hire a licensed teacher if you can outsource the class, she said.

“We need to watch out for the details and ask the question of what problem is this trying to solve,” Meredith said.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.

education power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Rep. Tim Brown

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 41, covering parts of Montgomery, Boone, and Tippecanoe counties. So far, has served 23 years in the House of Representatives. Brown had a career as an emergency room doctor in Crawfordsville, retiring in 2015.

Why he’s a power player: Brown is chairman of the influential House Ways & Means Committee, one of the main budget-writing bodies in the Indiana General Assembly. In addition to helping craft the state budget, which includes money for schools, Brown’s committee also considers bills that could have a financial impact on the state. Any proposal involving money — including testing, school choice and preschool — has to pass muster with him. In recent years, Brown has supported funding increases for students with special needs and virtual charter schools.

Money follows the child: Brown has pushed for changes over the years to how Indiana funds schools, favoring plans aimed at equalizing the base funding allocated for students across districts. Historically, the state had padded the budgets of districts that were losing large numbers of students — helping them adjust but leading to disparities between schools across the state.

Brown finally achieved his goal of having the same basic aid for each district in 2015. Enrollment is now the driving factor in how much money schools get, as opposed to where they are located or what kinds of students attend.

On school choice: Brown served on the House Education Committee in 2011, the year the legislature passed a number of major education reform measures dealing with charter schools, teacher evaluation and vouchers. Since then, Brown has continued to support school choice options, working on bills about “education savings accounts” and other choice programs that would let students take individual classes outside their public schools.

Who supports him: Brown has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers.

Given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Brown an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year and where they were halfway through the session.