School Choice

New rules helping more Indiana children use vouchers

Changes to Indiana’s voucher program in 2013 helped fuel dramatic growth and allow a growing share of wealthier families to access tax dollars to pay private school tuition.

The Indiana Department of Education’s data, released today, show 19,809 students are using vouchers this school year, more than double last year’s total of 9,324. The first-year number was 3,919. Indiana’s voucher program is the fastest growing in U.S. history and the nation’s second largest.

Proponents say vouchers offer opportunity to poor students at low-performing schools to attend usually higher-scoring private schools, and helps families with children whose parents feel they might fit better in private schools to afford it. Voucher opponents argue they drain away tax dollars intended for public schools while benefiting just a small subset of children.

This year, the state expects to spend up to $81 million on private school tuition through the program, up from $36 million last year. Vouchers redirect most, but not all, of the state aid set aside for each participant’s public school education. A small amount is returned to state coffers and shared among all public schools after all the program’s expenses are paid. Last year $4.9 million that was saved was redistributed statewide. That’s up from about $4.2 million the prior year.

Fort Wayne and Indianapolis Public Schools saw the most children living within their district boundaries use vouchers for private schools: 2,786 and 2,657 respectively. Voucher use was heavy throughout Marion County, but particularly in Lawrence (432), Perry (407), Warren (382) and Pike (339) townships.

Gary’s Ambassador Christian Academy had the most voucher students with 257, but three Indianapolis schools were in the top five: St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School (214), Cardinal Ritter High School (211) and Scecina High School (204).

Until this year, the vast majority of students using vouchers had to first attend public school for two semesters under state law. But that rule was loosened in 2013, allowing siblings of students using vouchers and students assigned to F-rated schools to avoid attending public school first. In all, about half the students who joined the program this school year — more than 5,000 — would not have been eligible without the changes.

Vouchers offer more tuition aid for poorer families. Eligibility depends on family size and annual income. The income guidelines allow a family of four with annual income less than $43,500 to receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education toward tuition. Families of four making more than that amount but less than $65,250, can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

Per-student state aid varies by district. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, the figure is about $8,000 per student. A maximum of $4,700 can be spent on private school tuition for elementary schools. There is no such cap for high schools.

The education department’s data show More families who don’t qualify for free lunch received vouchers last year, too. The percentage of students receiving vouchers from families with annual income above $43,500 jumped to 24.5 percent of children. That’s up from 18.8 percent last year, as 3,130 new children from families at the higher income level enrolled.

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Glenda Ritz, said she had not comment on the voucher data, preferring to allow the data to “speak for itself.”

Vouchers have brought intense opposition from teachers’ unions. The program, approved by the legislature in 2011, survived an Indiana State Teachers Association lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. The Indiana Supreme Court turned the suit away last year and declared vouchers legal. Before she ran for state superintendent, Ritz had been a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Teresa Meredith, ISTA president, said it was no surprise to her that last year’s changes to the voucher program appeared to benefit a large number of students already attending private schools.

“It only did what many suspected it would do — provide financial assistance to students already in private school,” she said.

The voucher program, Meredith said, only makes it harder for schools to serve Indiana’s neediest public school students.

“The whole program is really sad to me, when you see schools  in desperate need and you hear about struggling schools whose funding is being cut rather than looking at ways to go in and be diligent with kids in really challenged settings,” she said. “It seems like we are doing such a disservice.”

Among the ISTA’s objections cited in the lawsuit was the spending of state tax dollars on religious schools. The lawsuit argued that violated the constitutional prohibition against state support of religion. Vouchers continue to primarily benefit children attending religiously affiliated schools, mostly Catholic but also Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

Robert Enlow, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said between charter schools and the voucher program, Indiana is offering Indiana children more school choices than ever.

“We’re creating a much more varied set of options for families,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”

Unlike the other two large voucher programs in Ohio and Wisconsin, Indiana has looser rules from the start, which has allowed it to grow so quickly. Ohio launched its statewide program in 2006 and now has about 17,000 students. Wisconsin’s program began in 1990 and about 25,000 students now use vouchers there. It has since expanded to other parts of the state, serving about 1,700 additional students.

Both of those states limit vouchers to only communities with failing schools and caps the number of students who can receive vouchers. Indiana’s program has no cap and does not restrict income-eligible families from applying based on where they live.

Other voucher statistics released by the state include:

  • About 66.5 percent of voucher students are from metropolitan areas, 17.8 percent live in suburban areas, and 15.7 percent come from rural areas and towns.
  • More than 76 percent of voucher students are poor enough to qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program. For a family of four, that means less than $43,500 a year.
  • About 44 percent of voucher recipients are ethnic minorities, including 17 percent African-American, 18 percent Hispanic and 7 percent multiracial or Asian.
  • The voucher program saw an 8 percent growth in the number of participating schools over last year, to 313 from 289. The first year number was 241 schools or 23 percent less than today.
  • Students using vouchers now equate to 1.8 percent of Indiana’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. Students in the program live in 238 of Indiana’s 289 school districts. Most use vouchers to attend a private school located within their home school district but 32 percent go to a school outside their home district.
  • With incoming kindergarteners eligible for vouchers for the first time this year, 1,285 received them, or 6.5 percent of all voucher-users. The vast majority of voucher students, about 78 percent, are in grades 1 to 8.
  • When it comes to the new pathways the state created last year to using vouchers, about 14 percent of vouchers users this year are siblings of other voucher students, 9 percent were assigned to an F school and 5 percent are in special education.
  • Overall about 60 percent of voucher users previously attended a public school, but nearly 69 percent of those who earned vouchers for the first time had never attended public school in Indiana.
  • Last year about 7 percent of voucher users dropped out of the program. The figure was almost 9 percent the prior year.

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.