School Choice

The changing face of Indianapolis reflected by school enrollment data

Over the last nine years, Marion County school districts — with the exception of IPS — have enrolled more students, and as they have, schools have grown more diverse and more of the children they serve are coming from poor families.

This is the time of year when school districts report enrollment to the state, and it’s a big deal. Schools are funded on a per-student basis that is determined by two student counts in September and February. The September count was taken on Friday.

Students who don’t get counted can cost schools much-needed dollars. And in a budget cycle where some Marion County schools saw funding declines, every kid, well, counts.

And with every count, the subtle changes that are reshaping Indianapolis schools become a bit more pronounced.

Data on school district enrollment is available from the Indiana Department of Education going back to the 2005-06 school year. Looking at the changes over that time, it’s clear that enrollment is growing in public schools in Marion County, and much of that growth can be connected to more black and Hispanic students.

And many of the same districts that are gaining more black and Hispanic students also are losing white students.

All districts except IPS saw big gains in students coming from families poor enough to qualify for free lunches, meaning a family of four can’t earn more than $31,535 annually. While free meals generally increased, reduced-price meals decreased, possibly signifying an increase in poverty county-wide. (To qualify for reduced-price meal, the income limit for a family of four is $44,863 this year.) Franklin Township alone saw a 115 percent increase in free meals.

As districts grow and become more diverse, that can bring challenges for staffing and building maintenance.

Just two districts in the county lost students. Lawrence Township was down by 1,040 students at the end of the 2015 school year compared to 2006, but district spokeswoman Dana Altemeyer said some of that is being offset by out-of-district students who are enrolling and expressing interest in Lawrence schools. As of Sept. 11, the district is up 484 kids this school year.

There was a much bigger decline for IPS. About 8,000 students left between 2006 and 2015, a 21 percent drop.

Yet that trend isn’t necessarily new. Over the past few decades, it has become fairly common across the country for families to leave city centers for suburban schools. At more than 30,000 kids, IPS is the largest district in the state and in the county, beating out the next largest county district, Wayne Township, by almost double.

Below, Chalkbeat takes a closer look at a few of the county’s school districts that have seen the biggest changes according to enrollment data from the Indiana Department of Education. (You can also check out our recent profiles of highest- and lowest-scoring IPS and Township schools.)

See this spreadsheet for more detailed data breaking down enrollment by race, ethnicity and free and reduced-price lunch.

Perry Township 

One of the largest factors in Perry Township’s student enrollment growth is the ever-increasing number of refugees, many from Asia, choosing to settle in the area.

“The last several years we’ve been monitoring enrollment very close,” Superintendent Tom Little told Chalkbeat in March. “And we’ve been seeing a real growth at the elementary level, especially at the Kindergarten level. When they come to Perry Township, our children tend to stay.”

Over nine years, the district saw a 1,115-student spike overall, with an increase of 2,376 Asian students and 1,153 Hispanic students. The biggest bumps in the number of kids took place in 2009, 2013 and 2014, leaving the district with 14,955 students at the end of 2015.

Perry Township also saw a spike in the number of students receiving free lunches, up to 8,477 in 2015 from 4,837 in 2006. Part of that growth could be connected to the district’s refugee population, which tends to include families who are low-income and, many times, still learning English.

Little said he was excited about the district’s growth, something he attributes to the township’s affordable housing, cultural diversity and support from the business community — the district has passed four referendums for additional school funding in the past four years.

District officials said earlier this year before its most recent referendum passed that it needed the extra dollars for new and better buildings rather than relying on portable classroom trailers that aren’t the best learning environments or safest option for students.

“We feel Perry Township has truly become a premiere school district in the state of Indiana,” Little said last week. “And we’re poised for further growth.”

Wayne Township

The second-largest district in the county, Wayne Township has seen slower, but fairly steady, growth since 2006, expanding by 1,130 students by the end of last year.

There were small hills and valleys along the way, but district spokeswoman Mary Lang said it’s been consistent, and the district is in a good place to keep growing building-wise. Last week, enrollment hovered around 16,000 students, Lang said, up a few hundred from 15,758 at the end of 2015.

“We do have some portables at some schools, but we don’t at most,” Lang said. “And we are currently very much able to serve the students we have … so we are not looking at any construction projects at this point or anything like that.”

Lang said Ben Davis University High School’s early college program, which helps students earn an associate’s degree while still in high school, the availability of preschool and virtual learning options have all been draws the the district. As district attendance boundaries have been eliminated over time, Lang said it’s increasingly important to make sure Wayne is communicating with its community about what is has to offer.

“Families have the ability to choose more now than they ever have before, and we are very keenly aware of that,” Lang said. “We know it’s important for us to let people within our district know the great things that are happening so they can continue to feel good about sending their students here.”

Washington Township

After 12 years of stagnant growth, district Superintendent Nikki Woodson said, Washington Township’s enrollment picked up in earnest in 2010. From 2006 to 2015, the district grew by more than 10 percent — 1,073 students — to 11,348 in 2015.

It might not seem like much, but Woodson said it’s certainly significant for the district, which has also seen tremendous growth in poverty in the same time period. The number of children who come from families poor enough to qualify for free lunch jumped by 86 percent. Districtwide, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch is now 60 percent, up from 40 percent in 2006.

Historically, the large district has been a desirable place to live, with a mix of families of varying income levels.

But that many new students also puts stress on the district’s buildings, Woodson said. In 2007-08, the Washington Township School Board voted to close two elementary schools, just before enrollment spiked. At the time, census forecasting and talks with experts in demographics didn’t reveal any upcoming enrollment bumps.

“It is a huge impact to us because we had closed two elementary schools,” she said. “So had we been a fleet of nine elementary schools, things would feel a lot different with that additional numbers of students.”

Woodson said current 10-year enrollment predictions have the district growing by another 600 students by 2025.

Last year, Washington Township became the first district in Indiana, and just the sixth worldwide, to offer all-International Baccalaureate classes to all students in all grade levels. IB is a challenging, college-prep curriculum that encourages students to be globally-minded and use questions and critical-thinking to guide their learning.

Woodson said that IB, especially at the middle school level, has been attractive to families. The district has more than 600 students from outside the district’s boundaries. However, those extra students are not main reason for the overcrowded buildings, she said.

“Even when we remove all 600 from our fleet of schools, it does not subside overcrowding that exists,” Woodson said. “The nonresidents are not the reason for overcrowding because they are sprinkled amongst 13 different grade levels and 11 buildings, and it’s controlled enrollment.”

For now, Washington Township administrators are planning as best they can. A community conversation is likely the next step. Woodson said the district isn’t necessarily ready to re-open the closed schools, as they are in poor condition that would require a large sum to renovate, but they’ll take the lead from their residents.

“We’re thrilled with the growth,” she said. “It’s a challenge that we’re ready to tackle, but it’s not a challenge that we wish we didn’t have.”

Other trends

Changes in the county’s demographics in terms of ethnicity, race and poverty stem from long-term trends in the city and newer shifts in education policy, such as the state’s voucher program.

Each district except Beech Grove and Franklin Township, the county’s wealthiest, lost anywhere from 400 to more than 3,000 white students, while numbers of minority students, especially black and Hispanic students, increased.

Amos Brown, host of WTLC’s Afternoons with Amos radio show, has been studying Indianapolis’ demographic shifts since the state began releasing data in 1986. He said the changes to districts’ makeups of black and white students isn’t necessarily new. In 1986, Brown said, there were more than 81,000 white students in Marion County districts. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, that number was down to about 48,000.

“No one will admit that publicly, as the township school districts became more racially diverse — and this occurs in other cities — whites flee,” Brown said. “That’s been going on like forever. So all of a sudden a school or school district gets more minority students, and that tends to accelerate flight.”

Brown said the availability of publicly funded vouchers also might be a factor in districts losing white students. Last year, more wealthy, suburban families used the vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

As white families moved into the suburbs, Brown said, minority families moved into Marion County, and they tended to be younger families with more children. Districts like Washington Township are seeing rapidly growing enrollment in younger grades, he said. Brown is serving on a volunteer committee in the district that is assessing building needs.

Although its total enrollment has been fairly flat since 2006, Warren Township gained the largest number of black students by adding 1,129, or a 23.5 percent increase. Beech Grove schools saw the highest percent increase of black students at 74.3 percent, although the number grew by just 81 students in nine years to 190 at the end of last year in the small district.

In IPS, Hispanic enrollment is up by 61.1 percent over the nine years, while enrollment of white and black students dropped by about 37 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

“IPS is getting hit by a number of factors,” Brown said. “I think the perceptions and realities of violence, school quality — all of that plays into it.”

Wayne Township has become more diverse, adding about 2,500 Hispanic students since 2006, bringing them up to 3,844 — a 184 percent increase. Lang said the district has a large number of English-language learners, mostly Spanish-speakers, but still with about 70 different languages spoken in the district.

“We’ve created an atmosphere where people come into the district even if English is not their first language,” Lang said. “We are very attentive to their needs and helping them learn English and really get going into the school system.”

Beech Grove and Franklin also saw proportionally large increases to their enrollment at 26 and 11 percent. The growth seems to be spread across ethnic groups, with slight upticks for Hispanic students in Franklin and white students in Beech Grove.

Brown said that while he doesn’t expect to see any major changes to IPS’ enrollment when new enrollment data is released later this year, the district’s reunion with Arlington High School, back under its management after state takeover, and a deal with Charter Schools USA to co-manage Emma Donnan Middle School could add to the district’s student count.

“It’s a combination to me of vouchers, a combination of continued flight to the suburbs, changing family structure,” Brown said. “The county has changed. I think the nature of households has changed, and the minority growth is strong, and I think that’s reflected in schools.”

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

choice history

The rise of tax credits: How Arizona created an alternative to school vouchers — and why they’re spreading

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

With its recent adoption of a tax credit scholarship program, Illinois became the 18th state to adopt an innocuously named — but highly controversial — policy that critics have described as a “backdoor voucher.”

In some sense, the description is apt. But by injecting a middle layer into the government’s support of private school tuition, tax credits help avoid some of the legal and political obstacles that have dogged efforts by advocates, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to promote school choice through vouchers.

Perhaps as a result, more students now use tax incentive programs than vouchers to attend private schools in the U.S. A federal tax credit is also seen as the Trump administration’s favored approach for promoting school choice at the federal level, though its immediate progress looks increasingly unlikely.

The 20-year history of this approach offers insights into why it has taken hold: resistance to legal challenge; limited government oversight, appealing to among free-market advocates of school choice; and a more politically palatable branding than vouchers.

This is far better than vouchers — it is easier to pass and easier to uphold,” Trent Franks, a conservative activist and now a U.S. congressman, said in 1999 after Arizona’s state supreme court upheld its tuition tax credit program. “I think this is the direction the country will go in.”

He proved largely right.

The number of students participating in private school choice programs over time, including tax credits (green) and vouchers (orange). (EdChoice)

Arizona’s pioneering approach

The first tax credit program was passed in Arizona in 1997. Arizona’s constitution, like most other states’, bars public dollars from going to religiously affiliated schools. Proponents knew any plan to promote private school choice would likely end up in court.

So they landed upon an ingenious approach that would make the initiative more likely to survive legal challenge. Instead of issuing vouchers for private school tuition — like Milwaukee had done since 1990 — the state would outsource that role to nonprofits. Those groups would get their money from donations, encouraged by generous tax credits.

It worked like this: An individual could donate up to $500 to a nonprofit, then get a tax cut for the exact amount they donated. The nonprofit would take the donated money and use it to offer tuition stipends — essentially vouchers — to families who met certain conditions. That system allows the state to promote the tuition subsidy, losing $500 in revenue for each maxed out donation, without paying for it directly.

Arizona’s program has since grown, and the state has created a number of other tax credit programs. (This approach is distinct from programs that give individual families tax breaks for educational spending on their own children; Illinois has had such an initiative since 2000, while Minnesota has had one since 1955.)

Arizona’s and of Milwaukee’s policies look similar. In both places, students can receive a subsidy to attend a private school, and it comes at the expense of state revenue. But crucially, in Arizona, the government never had the money to begin with.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” Lisa Graham Keegan, who was Arizona’s school superintendent when the tax credit program passed, told Chalkbeat. “Those scholarships are completely separate, both for legal reasons and for philosophical reasons.”

Tax credits: the legal survivors

Private school choice across the country have been inundated with legal challenges, but tax credits have proven remarkably resilient.

Although voucher programs have continued to grow and were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, they have also faced legal challenges in state courts. Colorado’s top court, for example, struck down a voucher program in 2015. (The case is currently being reconsidered in light of a recent Supreme Court decision.)

But tax credits have never ultimately lost in state or federal court, prevailing in Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tax credits “grew up as a result of saying we need a different vehicle than vouchers in states that have legal issues,” said Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs both vouchers and tax credits. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Often, cases have been thrown out before substantive arguments can be made, amounting to a win for the programs: Some courts have ruled that private organizations or individuals do not have legal standing to challenge tax credits, since they aren’t government expenditures.

That was the decision in the 2010 Supreme Court case Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, in which the majority said equating government spending and tax credits was “incorrect.”

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizations], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Light regulatory touch proves a blessing and a downside

To Arizona conservatives skeptical of both regulation and the education establishment, the system had an additional benefit.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” said Graham Keegan, and additionally that “these don’t become government dollars.”

Nationwide, tax credit scholarship programs appear less regulated than voucher programs, some of which require private school students to take state tests or for schools to undergo financial audits.

Free-market oriented supporters “see ‘neovouchers’ as much less likely to be regulated and have restrictions — the government strings attached — than a traditional voucher law,” said Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who wrote a book on the rise of tax credit programs and is generally critical of them.

A 1998 essay published by the Mackinac Center, a conservative Michigan think tank, made this case explicitly: “Tuition tax credits also create very different effects than vouchers. … Vouchers are more likely to be viewed as a rationale for regulating the entity that receives the subsidy.”

This has played out in practice. One analysis compared several voucher programs to a number of tax credit programs and found that, in almost all cases, vouchers were more regulated. Most tax credit systems had few, if any, financial reporting or disclosure requirements. (Notably, Florida’s program, the largest in the country, was the most regulated tax credit initiative.)

Many tax credit programs do not require participating students to take state exams, and if they do, the tests are rarely comparable to the assessments taken in public school. This means that while voucher programs have been widely studied, there is little research on the effect of receiving a tax credit scholarship.

Supporters of this approach argue that such requirements discourage private schools from participating.

Limited oversight, however, has proven something of a political liability, insofar as it has allowed for financial malfeasance. National media have drawn attention to how one prominent politician and advocate for Arizona’s program was also able to profit personally from it, for example.

“I think [limited regulation] is a feature that has some bugs,” said Enlow of EdChoice. “We need to have transparency. The programs, like Florida, which are very transparent and very open to data collection, I think are very important.” He declined to name any tax credit programs that, in his view, lacked sufficient transparency.

The use of the tax code has also raised another concern: Under some tax credit systems, “donors” can actually earn a profit by taking advantage of both state and federal tax breaks.

Selling tax credits

How exactly to brand tax credit programs has been the subject of fierce debates. Opponents have called them “neovouchers” and “voucher schemes,” while supporters sometimes portray them as entirely distinct from vouchers.

Tax credits tend to poll better than vouchers, and Welner thinks that may be because it’s less clear to most people what they are.

“People’s eyes get bleary and they tune out when people start talking about tax credits,” he said. “That helps to avoid a situation where they respond to it the same way they respond to a voucher proposal.”

Tax credits are essentially a tax cut, which can be a selling point for some, especially conservatives. Advocates sometimes also downplay the costs of tax credits to the government.

“Is it foregone revenue? Sure, but it doesn’t mean it’s the state’s revenue,” said Enlow.

The distinctions between vouchers and tax credits, though, may ultimately matter less to lawmakers in states where they are being debated. In Illinois, critics connected tax credits to vouchers, and Democrats were largely opposed to the tax credit initiative that ultimately passed.

“In my experience the arguments have been the same whether it’s a tax credit bill or a voucher bill when you’re talking with legislators,” Enlow said. “There’s some nuances, but it’s still the same.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the name of a free-market Michigan think tank, which is the Mackinac Center.