From the Statehouse

Wealthiest schools thrive under new state budget while poor ones mostly get less

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
On the last day of the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers move ahead with plans to ditch ISTEP.

The effect of the new school funding formula approved by the Indiana legislature tonight can be summed up by the effect on the richest and poorest communities.

Of the 25 school districts with the highest family income, all of them will get more per-student state aid over the next two years.

But what about the 25 with the lowest family income? Just 12 of them get more money in 2016 and 2017 across the board — in overall state aid and per-student aid. The rest get less in one or both areas.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said it’s just not a sustainable model, especially for districts like Indianapolis Public Schools.

“We have 30,000 kids in my school district who are going to be asked to perform at a high level with less money than their surrounding school districts,” Taylor said. “One day we are going to have to come back here and recognize that that’s not going to happen with the lack of investment we have put in our children.”

Poor districts, in many cases, were just glad they weren’t hit harder. They faired worse in earlier draft budgets. But across the state, even poor districts that got more money saw smaller gains compared to their wealthier counterparts.

For example, Indianapolis Public Schools would’ve seen a 6 percent loss in funding in the House’s plan, a 4.2 percent loss in the Senate plan, but just a 2.8 percent loss in the new draft — a cut of about $17 million over two years. The final version of the budget, which next heads to Gov. Mike Pence, was the only scenario that included a funding bump for IPS — a 0.4 percent gain in per-student aid over two years to $7,708 per-student from $7,678.

But the budget enrollment projections struck IPS officials as pessimistic, suggesting the district would lose about 1,000 students during the next two years. IPS enrollment has been mostly stable for the past three years, and there is reason to believe it will remain so or even grow.

The district also recently decided to partner with Charter Schools USA to add grade levels at Emma Donnan Middle School, with a goal of recruiting up to 300 new students to the school that IPS could count. CSUSA operates the middle school independently after the school was taken over by the state for low test scores in 2012.

If IPS is right and enrollment remains steady, district officials estimate it could save $10 million over two years, reducing the lost state aid to just $6.5 million.

Other Indianapolis schools fair better.

All Marion County school districts besides IPS get more money from the state under the budget plan, with Franklin Township and Perry Township leading with 6.7 percent increases in overall funding. Both districts’ boosts can be attributed in part to growing student populations.

Wealthy Central Indiana school districts did especially well. Hamilton Southeastern schools, for example, would jump 12.4 percent in state aid over two years, while Westfield-Washington would jump 11.5 percent. Carmel and Zionsville will see gains of 9.1 percent and 9.6 percent.

A comparison of two of the state’s poorest districts, East Chicago and Gary schools, shows their overall state aid being reduced by 2 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively. Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said the state shouldn’t underestimate urban schools — that only makes things worse in the future.

“We make this self-fulfilling paradigm that we assume that Indianapolis, Gary, — big city schools — are going to lose students, so we fund them with less money,” Tallian said. “That makes them less able to fund good education, and then more kids really do leave.”

Yet Republican supporters of the budget plan say all schools should be on more equal footing when it comes to state aid. They have argued the poorest districts should get more money than the richest, but that today they get too much extra.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, hailed the budget plan for giving a big boost to schools while meeting other priorities. He cited Pence’s call in January for 2015 to be an “education session” for the legislature.

“Mission accomplished,” he said. “Every child has an opportunity across the state of Indiana.”

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, likened Brown’s comments to President George W. Bush’s much-mocked premature proclamation of “mission accomplished” in the Iraq War.

“I can remember someone said ‘mission accomplished’ a few years ago on an aircraft carrier, and the mission was not accomplished,” Porter said. “From a Democratic perspective the mission is not accomplished.”

Porter said the new school funding formula would be “devastating” to many Indiana schools, especially those that serve the state’s most vulnerable children.

“There will be job losses in regards to this proposed budget,” he said. “We take a big blow. Hundreds of public school teachers will be terminated, and class sizes will be raised, mostly in our poorest schools.”

More dollars for English language learners were put into the funding formula, and special aid for children living in poverty will be calculated by a new method based on the number of students eligible for food stamps, welfare and foster care. The new draft also funds full-day Kindergarten students, who in the past received less aid, the same as all other students.

Although Taylor voted against the budget, which passed the Senate 40-9 and the House 69-30, he acknowledged that the outcome might’ve easily been different.

“They could’ve lost a lot more,” he said.

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.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.