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.”

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.