Less money more problems

Without extra funding, after-school programs can’t serve the kids who need them most

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Sidener Academy in Indianapolis Public Schools read or do homework.

Debbie Zipes knows the problem: More than 220,000 Indiana kids go home unsupervised every day after school, putting them potentially at-risk during the highest-crime hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

As president of the Indiana Afterschool Network, she also knows the solution: Get those students involved in after-school programs across the state.

But in a cash-strapped state where advocates struggle to get enough money for needed programs during the school day, it’s hard to get much attention for programs that happen before and after class. A bill to support these so called “out of school time” programs didn’t get funded in the Indiana General Assembly this year, and other efforts to boost the programs can’t do much more than make recommendations.

The result is just 11 percent of Indiana kids are served by before- and after-school programs — not nearly enough, Zipes said. That compares to 18 percent nationally.

“Across the state, funding is very … transient,” Zipes said. “These programs are not in every school, they are not in every community.”

The biggest hurdle to expanding out of school time programs is cost. Legislation in the Indiana General Assembly this year created an advisory board to explore ways to expand the programs, but the bill had its funding stripped out before it could become law.

That leaves many schools to continue charging fees for the sports, arts and enrichment programs offered before and after school, putting them out of reach for low-income families.

It’s another knock against low-income kids who already tend to lag behind their peers in school. If schools are offering extra supports to kids after school, it doesn’t make sense to limit them only to wealthier kids, Zipes said.

“There are kids doing karate and building robots, compared to kids going home alone and watching video games,” Zipes said.

Kids from low-income families get 6,000 to 8,000 fewer hours of enrichment by the time they hit eighth grade, she said.

“We need to have these additional supports recognizing that parents are struggling with a lot of different things that are going to get in the way of what kids need.”

But even if all kids could afford to participate, the other issue in Indiana is that there simply aren’t enough programs to serve all of the kids who are interested.

“Right now many kids are on waiting lists,” Zipes said. “We’re not meeting the need.”

Some programs go out of their way to serve kids who need them most.

The At Your School program offers some of its programs at no cost to families who are poor enough to qualify for school lunch assistance, have a history of low test scores or meet other criteria demonstrating they have a high need for the program.

At Your School charges families with more resources about $60 to $80 a week and offer assistance to those who can’t afford the full price, said Leslie Hankins, the director of development and marketing for the program. The program is at 39 Indiana schools, including Indianapolis Public School’s Sidener Academy.

AYS focuses on making sure kids have time to do their homework and gives them healthy snacks — even seconds and thirds, if they ask.

“We don’t know if the kids are going to be eating once they leave us,” said Marsha Austin, the program director for AYS at Sidener.

Sidener has a mid-sized program, with about 57 total kids enrolled. On an afternoon right after spring break, about 20 kids gathered around tables in the AYS room at Sidener. They raced in once the final bell rang, collected their snack of clementines, celery sticks and peanut butter, and plopped down in their seats.

“Who has homework?” Austin asked. Hands shot up across the room. “Sit at your tables and read quietly so kids with homework can work.”

Every day involves this quiet time, Hankins said, making homework one less thing parents have to worry about when they pick up their kids around 6 p.m., but the program is not all study hall. Kids in the Sidener program dart in and out for school activities, such as karate club, chess club or Girl Scouts. The program organizes visits from artists who lead projects and from speakers who talk about issues like bullying.

“It’s building blocks to things that help as they get older,” Hankins said. “It’s not just babysitting or hanging out in the gym.”

Indiana needs more programs like these — especially for the state’s neediest kids, Zipes said. But, at least this year, the political will wasn’t there.

When Zipes testified before the House Education Committee in February on a bill that would create an advisory board for out-of-school programs and set up a mechanism to fund them in the future, some lawmakers were skeptical.

“We already have existing programs like this,” said Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour. “Are we creating another redundant program that’s just going to stretch the already tight dollar of the taxpayer?”

Lucas, along with other Republican lawmakers, said districts and communities should decide for themselves what programs to fund and how to fund them. Ultimately, Lucas said, it falls to parents to care for children, not the government. Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon, said programs that are too heavily subsidized lead to less parental oversight.

“When you have some skin in the game, you are going to be paying more attention to your children than if you just turn it over to someone else,” Rhoads said.

The bill eventually passed and was signed into law, but the funding component was removed. The remaining legislation calls for a committee of educators, state policymakers, parents and community members to study the state’s existing programs and report back to lawmakers by Nov. 1. Committee members will be chosen by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the state Family and Social Services Administration.

As a foster parent, Zipes has seen first-hand how more school involvement has helped change kids. Even though funding is still elusive, she said she’s grateful that the discussion at the capitol has expanded the the conversation around the potential benefits of out-of-school programs.

“I think the power of that advisory committee is going to be really impactful,” Zipes said. “It’s just a huge opportunity to really look at what the state landscape is and really what it will take so that all kids have equal access.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.