Building Better Schools

Public, private and charter school leaders agree: Whether it’s to keep buildings open or offer dual credit, they need more money.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Enroll Indy is attempting to create a unified enrollment system for IPS and charter schools but it's unclear what schools will participate.

School leaders have one thing in common regardless of whether they lead private, charter or traditional public schools: They are cash strapped.

At least, that was the common theme at a school finance discussion hosted in Indianapolis last night by the Mind Trust and UNCF. The panelists included: Kelli Marshall who leads the Tindley Accelerated Schools charter network, Weston Young who is chief financial manager for Indianapolis Public Schools and Joseph Heidt, president of the private Catholic Providence Cristo Rey High School. Melissa Ambre, director of the Indiana Department of Education Office of Finance, filled out the panel.

While all the three education leaders face different challenges, the schools they serve are educating primarily low-income students, and each spoke about the struggle to educate students with limited resources.

All three high schools are heavily reliant on state funds — more than 95 percent of Providence Cristo Rey students receive tuition vouchers from the state— and there unspoken theme of the conversation was a call for lawmakers to increase funding. State funding for schools has increased slightly in recent years, but it is about 4 percent lower per student than it was before the recession, according to a report from the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Providence Cristo Rey High School is part of a national network of Catholic schools. More than 93 percent of its students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals, and when the school evaluates how much each family can afford to pay, the average is about $300, Heidt said. That means Providence Cristo Rey has to rely on money from other sources, such as philanthropy and an unusual work study program, where students work for corporate partners and their income subsidizes tuition.

“As a private school … it’s not manna from heaven, where there’s an unending amount of funds,” Heidt said. “We are very busy in terms of reaching out to the community to support the education of the students we serve.”

Marshall said that at Tindley, one of the biggest burdens is paying for students to take dual credit courses, which allow them to earn college credit in high school. Because Tindley wants the classes to be free for students, the network foots the bill, Marshall said. She said the network also spends lots of money on facilities and athletics.

“It does become a challenge,” Marshall said.

For Indianapolis Public Schools, there are many financial challenges. But Young highlighted the high cost of educating students with special needs and the burgeoning population of English language learners in district schools. He also pointed to the cost of running high schools with far more seats than students to fill them.

People “have left the district over the course of three decades. That has had an impact,” Young said. “We have to do something about our buildings.”

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”