Follow the money

All Indianapolis districts gain state dollars under Senate budget plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Sidener Academy in Indianapolis Public Schools read or do homework.

Indiana Senate Republicans want to boost funding for teacher bonuses and reduce losses for school districts serving lots of poor students, according to a budget plan released Thursday.

The Senate proposal calls for raising education funding by $358 million, or 3.25 percent, over the next two years — the most of any state budget plan presented this year. Per-student funding would also increase slightly to $5,274 in 2019, up from the $5,088 school districts received in 2017.

The plan includes few surprises, but marks the next phase of the state’s budget negotiations. The House proposed a smaller $273 million, 2.8 percent funding increase for education last month, although the House plan would include higher per-student funding. Much of the Senate increase appears to come from the provisions for teacher bonuses and poor students.

According to Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the budget-making Appropriations Committee, the funding increase includes $40 million per year directed at the “complexity index,” which determines how much extra money districts receive to educate poor students. That will primarily benefit urban and rural schools, he said. Based on changes to how that formula is calculated, most districts still lose complexity dollars, but in the Senate plan, the losses are less steep than what the House projected.

“We thought that Indiana has a good reputation across the nation as funding those who have the greatest needs, so we thought we needed to work on that a little bit more,” Kenley said. “I think it’s an equitable result.”

Democrats applauded those increases, though the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Karen Tallian, said they weren’t enough.

Under the Senate’s budget, every district in Marion County sees its basic state aid and per-student funding increase, including Indianapolis Public Schools, which would receive cuts in the House plan.

Growing suburban districts like Zionsville and Hamilton Southeastern would get sizable funding bumps from the Senate, while shrinking districts, including East Chicago and Gary, would lose state money. But overall, the state’s poorest districts seem to fare better under the Senate’s plan than the House’s.

The Senate’s budget also adds back in $40 million per year for teacher bonuses, which the House had removed from earlier proposals — one of a number of changes proposed by state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The bonus program would work slightly differently than it has in years past, and dole out money based on school enrollment rather than ISTEP scores. The change comes after wide disparities in last year’s bonuses were criticized by educators across the state.

“We think, number one, that we need to make sure we get more money to the classroom teacher,” Kenley said. “We think teachers everywhere that are doing a good job should be rewarded for that.”

The Senate’s new plan would distribute $39 per student to each district in the state. That money would then be divvied up among teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective.” Of that money, up to 50 percent could be added into a teacher’s base salary. That would help teachers boost their future pension payments, which year-end stipends do not, Tallian said.

Like the House budget plan, the Senate budget increases funding for English learners, but it weights that funding toward schools where English learners make up at least 5 percent of their enrollment. Overall, an additional $11.5 million is set aside for those schools over the next two years.

The Senate plan also adds in requirements for virtual schools, mandating that they report information about class size, teacher-per-student ratios, and how often teachers have in-person meetings to the education department each year. Those schools wouldn’t qualify for the English-learner or teacher bonus grants, and would only get 90 percent of the basic per-student funding amount from the state, as they do now. The House’s plan would increase that to 100 percent.

The state’s voucher program would see its funding grow over the next two years under the Senate plan, as with the House plan. Indiana is projected to spend more than $156 million by 2018 and $167 million by 2019 on the program, up from $146 million in 2017. The Senate also includes those figures as a budget line item, rather than just as part of the funding formula, which Kenley said was more transparent. Tallian agreed.

“It’s a great move that we’ve been calling for for several years,” she said.

The Senate budget also includes:

  • $16 million per year for the state’s preschool program, a $4 million increase per year. The proposal also allows programs from all 92 counties participate, rather than the current five — similar to bills that passed out of the Senate earlier this year.
  • $1 million per year for a home-based early education program called UpStart.
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs.
  • $1 million per year to “align” initiatives regarding science, technology, engineering and math education.
  • $12.5 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program.
  • Funding increases for special education and honors grants.
  • Funding increases for Advanced Placement and PSAT testing.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.