School choice

It started with vouchers and charter schools. Now Indiana’s exploring ‘course choice,’ another way for kids to learn outside traditional 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.

Sorting the Students

Less than two weeks before school starts, only half of Memphis students registered

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
A family signs up students for the upcoming school year at a Shelby County Schools registration event at the Memphis Zoo.

Clipboard in hand, Tangela Blanks talks up the importance of registering for school early to families as they enter the Memphis Zoo on a “free Tuesday” this summer.

A few families pause from their outing to follow up but, on this hot afternoon, workers easily outnumber registrants at computer-lined registration tables under a shady overhang.

As with past years, it’s been a slow build across the summer to get Memphis families to sign up for Shelby County Schools before the Aug. 7 start of class.

With less than two weeks of summer break left, only about half of the anticipated 90,000 students have registered. That’s better than this time last year, when only about 30,000 had signed up. And it’s despite a two-week July shutdown of the district’s online registration system for scheduled maintenance. But the total still lags as Tennessee’s largest district tries to anticipate staffing needs without solid numbers to work with.

Late school registration is a chronic issue for public schools in Memphis, where poverty and a high rate of student mobility is among the challenges. Many parents bring their children to school days and even weeks after classes begin.

The district has aggressively sought to accelerate the process by providing online registration since 2015 and holding a slew of out-in-the-community events at libraries, museums, community centers and festivals — anywhere where families will show up.

“We realize that oftentimes during the summer, registration is not on a parent’s mind, so we want to be visible and meet parents where they are,” said Angela Hargrave, who oversees attendance for the district. “We can be there to say, ‘Can we help you register? Have you gotten your child ready for school?’ It’s a good way to reach out to the community and provide information.”

Blanks said most families that she’s signed up are excited about the convenience and the chance to get some help.“Most of them have a lot of things going on,” she said. “Many are in the transition of moving, and this makes the transition smoother.”

Shelby County Schools has been shrinking gradually since the historic merger of city and county schools in 2013. The city’s education landscape has become increasingly splintered, including charter expansion under the state-run Achievement School District and the exodus of students to suburban school systems that broke off from the Memphis-headquartered district in 2014.

Last year’s enrollment was under 92,000 students for traditional schools and another 13,000 at 45 district-authorized charter schools.

While charter schools conduct their own registration drives, district leaders are confident that traditional registration will pick up over the next two weeks. Last week alone, 5,000 parents registered. Next week, a Back 2 School Block Party is planned for Aug. 5 at the central office, complete with free food, games, immunizations and health screenings.

Getting physicals and the proper immunizations are among the biggest challenges to timely registration. So the district has partnered with community health agencies to bring on-site immunizations and health clinics to families.

Registrants also need a district-provided code and password to log on to the registration site.

Below is a district-produced promotional video about the importance of early registration.

student says

Here’s what New York City students told top state officials about school segregation

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students discussed attending racially isolated schools at the Board of Regents meeting.

New York state’s top policymakers are wading into a heated debate about how to integrate the state’s schools. But before they pick a course of action, they wanted to hear from their main constituents: students.

At last week’s Board of Regents meeting, policymakers invited students from Epic Theatre Ensemble, who performed a short play, and from IntegrateNYC4Me, a youth activist group, to explain what it’s like to attend racially isolated schools. New York’s drive to integrate schools is, in part, a response to a widely reported study that named the state’s schools — including those in New York City — as the most segregated in the country.

The Board of Regents has expressed interest in using the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to address this issue and released a draft diversity statement in June.

Here’s what graduating seniors told the Board about what it’s like to attend school in a segregated school system. These stories have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“I have never, ever had a white classmate.”

Throughout my years of schooling and going to school, I have never, ever had a white classmate. It’s something that now that I’m getting ready to go to college, it’s something to really think about, and I don’t think that we’re moving in the right direction. I went to the accepted student day at my college — I’m going to SUNY Purchase. I went there, and I’m being introduced into this whole new world that I never was exposed to.

It’s really a problem. I know I’m not the only one because I have family members and I spoke to some of my brothers and I’m like, “I have never encountered a white classmate in my whole life.” Just to show you how important [it is] to integrate the schools. Just so future kids don’t have to deal with that.

It wasn’t in my power for me to be able to have different classmates. I think in our school, we had one Asian girl, freshman year. She was there for literally like two days and she left so I have been limited in my school years to just African-Americans and Latinos.

So now that I’m getting ready to step out there, this is something I’ve never had to deal with. So the issue is something that’s really deep and near to my heart and now that I’m going to college I have to, you know, adapt. I’m sure it’s a whole different ball game.

— Dantae Duwhite, 18, attended the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts, going to SUNY Purchase in the fall

***

“I saw how much of a community that school had.”

I first became involved in IntegrateNYC4me my junior year when we were having a school exchange between my school in Brooklyn [Leon M. Goldstein] and Bronx Academy of Letters.

When I went into the [school] exchange, I was really excited to see how different the other school would be. But when I got there, I saw how much of a community that school had and personally, I didn’t feel that in my school. My school is majority white and it’s just very segregated within the school, so [I liked] coming into [a different] school and seeing how much community they had and how friendly they are. They just say hi to each other in the hallways and everybody knows each other and even us. We went in and we’re like strangers and they were so welcoming to us and I know they didn’t have the same experience at our school. That really interested me and that’s how I got into the work.

If it weren’t so segregated, it could be so easy for all of us to have a welcoming community like the Bronx Letters students did.

— Julisa Perez, 18, attended Leon M. Goldstein, a screened high school in Brooklyn and will attend Brooklyn college in the fall

***

“They’re expected to take the same Regents, yet they’re not given the same lab equipment.” 

I also went on the exchange my junior and senior year. The first time I did it was my junior year and when I went to Bronx Letters, the first thing I noticed was how resources were allocated unfairly between our schools.

Because, at my school, we have three lab rooms:, a science lab, a chemistry lab and a physics lab. And at Bronx Letters, they never even had a lab room, they just had lab equipment. And I think it’s important to see that all New York City students are expected to meet the same state requirements. They’re expected to take the same Regents, yet they’re not given the same lab equipment and they’re not given the same resources. So I think it’s unfair to expect the same of students when they’re not given equitable resources. That is what I took away from it.

— Aneth Naranjo, 18, attended Leon M. Goldstein, will attend John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the fall