Rich school, poor school: IPS push to even out funding could bring big changes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students gather in the gym on a Wednesday morning in February at IPS School 27, a Center For Inquiry magnet school.

The students at Indianapolis Public School 15 face significant challenges. Most are poor, a third still need to learn English as a new language and three out of five have failed state tests every year since 2010.

Yet even with needs like those that are more challenging than most, this struggling school on Indianapolis’ east side gets less money from the district per student than many other IPS schools. It has about $4,652 per student to educate its children, according to the proposed district budget for 2015.

It’s a different story at School 84, an elite Center for Inquiry magnet school on the north side that attracts many of the city’s wealthiest children.

School 84 gets $5,955 per pupil from the Indianapolis Public Schools — about 28 percent more than School 15 — even though fewer kids need the special attention that comes with poverty and the demands of learning English as a new language. Just 8.2 percent of School 84 kids come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common poverty measure, and less than 1 percent are English language learners. The school posted some of the highest test scores in the city last year, earning an A on its state report card.

It’s an inequity playing out across the district that some IPS board members say they want to fix.

“One of the board’s core commitments and beliefs is to ensure that we have access and equity for all students across the district,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said.

To do so, a budget proposal that Ferebee and the board are considering would radically change the way Indianapolis schools are funded.

The plan could have far-reaching consequences for students and teachers across the city, with some schools coming out ahead — and others facing difficult choices as they find their budgets slashed.

Depending on what method the board decides to use to equalize funding, the plan could mean some teachers — especially veterans — might have to move to new schools. Struggling schools like School 15 could expect more money to pay for needed services, but some of the city’s most successful schools — places like School 84 —  might lose significant dollars that they use now to pay for their special programs and staff.

“It kind of scares me,” Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the the district’s teachers union, said of the weighted-budgeting proposal.

If schools suddenly lose funds to pay for experienced teachers, principals may be forced to make choices that could harm their schools, she said.

“I’m really concerned with people being able to do what’s right to meet their budgets,” Cornett said.

The plan

The new funding model IPS is considering, called “weighted” or “student-based” budgeting, has become increasingly popular in urban districts over the last two decades.

The method is supposed to distribute funds to schools based on the needs of students in each building. Schools get extra funding for students with greater challenges, like those who need special education services or those who are learning English as a new language, and principals are given more control over school spending decisions. School leaders, for example, can decide how much they want to invest in music courses or teacher training. More of one could mean less of the other.

The model is a departure from traditional school funding in which schools receive set amounts for curriculum or supplies, and teacher salaries are paid by the district without considering whether a school has mostly highly paid veterans or novices at the bottom of the pay scale.

Teacher salaries account for most of the difference in funding among IPS schools. That’s why School 84, where the average teacher makes $56,325 per year, gets more money per student than School 15 where the average teacher salary is $43,713.

Teacher salaries are one reason weighted funding has been controversial where it’s been tried, since some approaches to the weighted model may encourage principals to push out experienced teachers in order to hire younger teachers for less money.

As Indianapolis considers a shift to the weighted model, teachers and their union worry that veteran educators will be targeted to save costs. Parents at some of the city’s top schools, which often have the highest numbers of experienced teachers, worry the new model could mean upheaval if large numbers of teachers choose to retire or are forced to change schools.

Weighted budgeting is currently used in dozens of cities — from pioneers like Houston to newer converts like Cleveland.

But the delicate politics around who gets how much money have prevented many districts from fully employing the model. In Chicago, the district struggled to phase in weighted budgeting for nearly a decade, finally implementing it district-wide in 2013, but magnet and selective enrollment schools are funded separately.

In Seattle, the highest profile district to try and then abandon weighted budgeting, principals only had control over about 10 percent of their budgets, a district official told Education Week in 2012.

In districts that have more fully embraced weighted budgeting, including Hartford, Boston and Houston, 40-45 percent of district budgets are allocated on a per student basis, according to a recent report from the Edunomics Lab.

How the model would be implemented in Indianapolis is still unclear. The district aims to develop a weighted plan that it would first try with a pilot group of six to eight schools next year before expanding it more broadly.

The pilot schools, which have not yet been selected, would be a mix of elementary, secondary and magnet schools with that the district decides are ready to take on more self-management. Those schools would get more control over their budgets but, in the short term, they are unlikely to feel the pain of weighted budgeting. The district says it has no plans to change funding levels during the pilot phase.

Weighted budgeting is part of Ferebee’s larger effort to grant greater control to principals. He wants to create schools where local leaders manage curriculum, staffing and teacher training.

The district aims to give principals as much control over their budgets as it can while complying with state law, Ferebee said.

“Great leaders need to be making those decisions about their schools,” Ferebee said. “They have the local context. They know their students. We want to have the ability to make decisions about how to support them.”

Uneven funding

The logic behind weighted budgeting seems simple: make sure all schools get the resources they need to meet the needs of their students.

Funding inequities in Indianapolis are not just between schools that serve wealthier students and those that serve poor students. Some schools with larger numbers of poor children do have experienced staff that are well-paid. Not all magnet schools serve mostly wealthy kids, either. Some have large numbers of kids with significant barriers to learning.

But economics does play a role. A comparison of the five highest and lowest poverty schools in the district from an Urban Leaders Fellowship report found that the schools with the fewest poor students receive 22 percent more per year on average from the district than schools with the most poor children — a difference of $1,329 per student.

The current system isn’t fair, said Yvonne Millbrook, a parent at School 15.

“It’s upsetting,” she said. “They should all get even (funding). I don’t understand how some schools get funded more than others in the same district.”

Millbrook would love to see more money come to School 15, where her fourth-grade daughter receives special education services, but if steering more dollars to schools like School 15 means tinkering with popular, high-scoring schools, the plan could meet with objections — even from board members.

“If you’re (a) good (teacher) and you’ve got the training, your principal doesn’t want to let you go. And we wouldn’t want to ding a school for that,” said IPS Board member Kelly Bentley.

On the other hand, she said, “having all of your experienced staff in one building isn’t equitable to kids across the district.”

Tracy Ross, a parent at School 84, said parents don’t realize what might be coming if weighted budgeting is eventually put in place. She only learned IPS wanted to move toward a new system because she is vice-president of the school’s parent-teacher-student association, where it was discussed. She worries about what will happen if the school loses money.

“We like the way our school is now,” she said.

Impact on schools

Just how fair and equitable the future funding system would be using weighted budgeting is up to the board.

Under weighted budgeting, there are two ways for districts to approach to teacher pay.

One option, which is rarely used because it can cause significant turmoil in school staffing, charges schools the actual cost of the salary of each teacher. That means each school would receive a set budget to hire teachers and buy supplies, forcing principals who hire highly paid veteran teachers to spend more on wages than principals who hire novice teachers making the minimum $40,000. The top step of the pay scale in the new IPS contract is $58,600 but dozens of the most experienced teachers make $70,000 or more.

The other, less radical approach, would charge schools the same amount for all teachers, regardless of their salaries. The cost of a teacher would be based on the average district salary, so schools whose teachers earn more than the average salary would be charged the same amount as schools whose teachers earn less than the average. IPS teachers earned an average salary of $52,384 in 2013-2014, the latest year available from the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board.

The second approach would not have much impact on the status quo. Schools like School 15, which has lower-paid teachers, would still be subsidizing schools like School 84, which has higher-paid teachers, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and an advocate for weighted budgeting. But even the less radical approach to student-based funding could have at least some influence on funding inequities.

For example, it could correct inequities that have resulted in some schools having fewer student per teacher than others, Roza said.

The more modest approach would also allow the district to correct inequities by steering new dollars to schools that are currently not getting their fair share. Bentley noted that the district expects to free up some money over the next few years as it considers closing or consolidating some schools, rents out empty building space and reduces central office spending. She also hopes IPS will attract new students into the district — and the state aid dollars they would bring — by expanding its best programs.

There is is value in even just beginning the weighted funding discussion, Roza said. It could help bring the problem of inequities into the open so they can be addressed.

“Right now (some schools) are over-funded, and no one understands how or why,” she said. “If I’m across the train tracks from another school that’s getting 20 percent more than I am, I’m going to be like, ‘you’re taking my money.’ But right now, we don’t know whose money it is. It’s very confusing.”

Winners and losers

Whatever approach Indianapolis decides to use, if the board votes to proceed with the new funding model, some IPS schools will come out ahead, while others will lose out.

David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, a consulting firm that’s helping the district plan and pilot weighted budgeting, said the board’s choice comes down to how they want principals to manage.

“I don’t think there’s a single right answer,” Rosenberg said. “It’s more about what do you want your principals to focus on. With average salary, I’m basically freeing principals from thinking about the cost of a teacher and letting them focus only on the effectiveness of a teacher.”

Under the current system, the CFI magnet schools, for example, are able hire as many highly-qualified teachers as they can recruit.

“I value experience, and I can hire experience as a principal because that teacher costs the district more but they don’t cost me more,” said Chris Collier, a CFI co-founder who leads School 84.

But even if the district uses the less dramatic — and less equitable — approach to weighted funding, popular magnets like the CFI and Montessori schools could lose out. The model is designed to give extra funding to schools with the most needy students. Many magnets serve wealthier students with fewer barriers to learning  than the rest of the district.

Specialized magnets could be badly handicapped if they lose funding because they are more expensive to run than an average school, Collier said. Both Montessori and CFI schools, for example, spend extra on the curriculum and training needed to support their unique teaching approaches.

“Whether you are a magnet school or whether you’re a neighborhood school, there are schools that have needs,” Collier said. “Equity doesn’t always mean the same thing. It should mean everybody gets what they need.”

Administrators wait for data

Before the district makes decisions about how to allocate funding among schools, it needs to know just how equitable the current funding system is.

Right now, it doesn’t.

Education Resource Strategies, the district’s consultant, is conducting an analysis of district spending that will be available early next year. That report should give educational leaders and the public a clearer picture of just how wide the divide is between the schools getting the most money and those getting the least.

“The analysis will give an indication of where we are spending our resources and if it is allocated with equity,” Ferebee said. “For example, if a school has struggled persistently with under achievement or there’s a large number of special education students, are we spending more or less to support those students compared to other schools in the district?”

The new system might ultimately be painful for some of the city’s top schools, but board member Mary Ann Sullivan said she plans to vote for what’s fair.

“I want to be able to sleep at night,” she said. “I want to know that our kids that have the greatest need are getting fair and equitable resources to meet their needs.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.