Big money

Indiana schools credit rating at risk: Move could cost districts millions

A national credit rating agency is threatening to downgrade Indiana school debt, in a move that could costs districts millions of dollars.

In a statement issued yesterday, the national credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s said that it has placed a 90-day watch on the rating for loans to all Indiana school districts. If the state does not resolve S&P’s concerns, the ratings for school corporations across Indiana could be lowered, forcing districts to pay higher interest rates on debt.

Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts said the watch from the S&P could cost the district more than $1 million in additional interest on bonds it plans to issue in the coming months.

“Anytime you are talking about credit, it’s always very concerning,” Butts said. “Being able to take advantage of lower interest rates … is the only thing really that allows us right now, with our current (tax) cap, to maintain the facilities that our community has invested in.”

The warning was sparked by a new interpretation from S&P of a state statute designed to ensure creditors receive payments on loans to districts. The law allows the state to divert aid meant for schools to pay debt if the districts do not make their debt payments. By ensuring that creditors are paid, the law improves credit ratings for districts across the state.

It is unclear whether the state has recently changed how it handles intercepting state aid. S&P said in a statement that the watch was issued because analysts have new concerns about the process.

“As part of a routine portfolio review, we learned that the Office of the Treasurer of State would administer the intercept of state aid under IC 20-48-1-11 differently than we had understood,” S&P said in the statement. “There is a possibility that Indiana could revise current procedures resulting in an intercept of state aid that provides for timely payment of debt service in full. … In the event such revisions are made in a timely manner, the rating could be affirmed.”

The Indiana Office of Management and Budget Director Micah Vincent said in a statement that the state is working to ensure the watch is removed.

“We are looking at possible solutions to address S&P’s newfound concerns,” Vincent said. “It is our goal to ensure that S&P removes the Indiana State Aid Intercept rating from CreditWatch and affirms the intercept program’s excellent credit rating, which supports Indiana’s schools and taxpayers.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

Betsy DeVos

‘Receive mode’? The D.C. school DeVos visited responded to her criticism with a withering tweetstorm

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Middle School Academy is standing up for its teachers after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said they are “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

DeVos made the comments in one of her first interviews since being confirmed last week. She said teachers at the school — the first one she visited on the job — were “sincere” but seemed to be in “receive mode,” which she said “is not going to bring success to an individual child.”

The school took to Twitter late Friday to make its case. In 11 messages, the school described several teachers who creating new programs and tailoring their teaching to meet students’ considerable needs.

“JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode,'” read the final message. “Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.”

The former and current D.C. schools chiefs have also weighed in. Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who accompanied DeVos on her school visit, issued a statement praising the teaching at Jefferson Academy. And his predecessor, Kaya Henderson, tweeted her withering take on DeVos’s comments:

Here’s the full tweetstorm from Jefferson Academy, which D.C. Public Schools considered a “rising school” because of its good -but-not-great test scores.