School Finance

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.

School Finance

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

The school board is expected to review the OPEB proposal at its Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 meetings.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.