Funding & Finance

State budget proposal shifts aid toward wealthy schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students at the Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Indiana’s proposed two-year budget, released today, would add more money for education than in recent years, widely boosting per-student basic aid.

But changes in the funding system appear likely to funnel most of those extra dollars to wealthy suburban school districts, while some of the poorest schools could actually get less money.

Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, would see a 6 percent reduction in total state tuition aid by 2017 despite being one of the state’s poorest districts, with more than 75 percent of children coming from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Some of the state’s other poorest cities also would face basic tuition aid cuts: 19 percent for Gary, 10.5 percent for East Chicago and 3 percent for Hammond by 2017.

Meanwhile, the two wealthiest school districts in the state for family income — Zionsville and Carmel — would see large increases in total state basic tuition aid: 10.6 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively, over the two-year budget period. Neither district has more than 10 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

At the same time, the proposed budget also would provide more money for public charter schools and private schools receiving publicly funded tuition vouchers.

“I’m happy to see some school corporations are getting more, but I’m disappointed IPS might potentially be on the losing end in terms of less funding,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said.

Besides IPS, no other Marion County school districts would see their basic state tuition aid go down, and several see strong gains.

Beech Grove would get the biggest boost in Marion County, with a 10.4 percent increase in total tuition support by 2017. Franklin Township would get 7.6 percent more, and Perry and Washington townships each would get a 7.4 percent increase.

Under the budget plan, crafted by House Republicans, K-12 schools statewide would see a 4.7 percent increase over two years through 2017. The added money for schools was much more than in the last two-year budget, which raised school aid by about 3 percent through this year. Overall, tuition support for public schools will rise by $469 million to a record high of $6.9 billion, up from the all-time high in the last budget of $6.7 billion in 2015.

Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, the chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, hailed the school funding plan as making progress to improve the funding system after years of complaints about how school dollars are divided up.

Extra money added to the basic tuition amount for each student — called the “foundation” level — benefits all schools, Brown said.

“I feel very comfortable that it substantially increases the foundation,” Brown said. “As we look at money following the child, it does an adequate and equal job of funding of the services they need within the budget limitations that we do have.”

The proposal would make some big changes to the way schools are funded, especially for how extra aid for poor and disabled children is paid out.

For example, extra dollars to help poor children, who often start school behind their peers on skills such as reading and math, would be calculated based on the number of students who come from families poor enough to qualify for free lunch. In the past, that factor also counted in children who are not as poor but still qualify for a reduced-price lunch based on family income.

That change appeared to translate to less state aid for several high-poverty districts, according to estimated aid numbers provided by House Republicans.

On the other hand, districts with large numbers of students who are severely disabled could get more aid. A 5.4 percent increase, Brown said, was the first hike in aid for disabled children in 20 years. That could help some high-poverty districts, which also tend to have larger numbers of students with disabilities.

For IPS, at least, there would be far more dollars lost than gained under the proposed new formula. The changes in the poverty calculation — called a “complexity index” — alone could result in a 14 percent drop in poverty aid to the district, for example.

Going backwards on total state aid for any district, much less those with the most poor children, is tough in a time when education dollars are already tight, Ferebee said

“It’s disappointing that anybody loses funding,” he said. “We all know education is not funded at the level we’d like it to be.”

Since Republican leaders said earlier this year that reworking the school funding formula would be a priority, suburban and city school leaders have worked behind the scenes to try to make their cases for more money — or at least not to lose ground.

Wealthy, mostly suburban schools have argued Indiana’s school funding formula is unfair because they receive the smallest amount of state aid — in some cases not enough to provide basics, they have argued — but are producing the state’s best test scores, graduation rates and other student performance results.

But the state’s poorest school districts — many of them centered in Indiana’ most economically distressed cities — argued the extra money they receive is desperately needed to educate very poor children who often come to school far behind their peers.

After Republicans took control of both houses of the Indiana General Assembly in 2010, they pushed for more equal school funding. A plan to adjust the state’s basic per-student aid levels is about halfway through a seven-year process designed to narrow the gap between the high-poverty districts, which receive the most aid, and the wealthiest districts, which receive the least. The new budget would accelerate that timeline to complete the process early, by 2016.

That gap, which for 2015 is estimated to be a $2,787 difference between the districts the formula deems poorest and wealthiest, would be dramatically cut to just $1,618 more for the poorest district over the wealthiest.

Other school funding changes the proposed budget would make include:

  • Kindergarten students would each count as one student in the formula. Previously, they counted for one-half of a student but received some extra aid through grants. Ferebee said he was pleased by this move, saying lawmakers deserved credit for making it a priority.
  • About $40 million would be set aside for grants to help charter schools with building, transportation and other non-classroom costs.
  • A cap of $4,800 for elementary school students who use publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition would be removed. Children could receive up to 90 percent of their home school district’s state tuition aid amount. The estimated additional cost to the state for the change is about $3.5 million.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”