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.”

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

priorities

With school finance act, Colorado lawmakers try to pass the hot potato of teacher pay to local districts

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, calls for more money for education during a rally with teachers and fellow Democratic members of the House Education Committee at the Capitol Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

A school finance act that puts more money into K-12 education than Colorado has spent at any point since the Great Recession passed a key House committee Monday with easy bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers on the House Education Committee urged local school boards to turn this money into teacher raises – and Colorado voters to provide even more funds next year.

The hearing on the school finance act occurred as hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol as part of a day of action to ask for more school funding and protections for retirement benefits. Before the hearing started, Democratic committee members met with teachers in the foyer of the Capitol and joined them in chants of “not enough” and “no more B.S.,” a reference to the state’s budget stabilization or “negative” factor. That’s the difference between what Colorado spends on schools and what it’s constitutionally required to allocate, based on inflation and numbers of students.

A group of education advocates hopes to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for schools on the November ballot. Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

“We need to support our teachers, and we need to support our schools, and we need you to ensure not only that we pass the bills that we are bringing this session, but that we unite this November to ensure our kids are put first in Colorado,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee.

The school finance act, which provides more detail on the education funding already set aside in the 2018-19 budget, calls for a little more than $7 billion in total program spending in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from this year. The state portion is $4.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from this year; local districts would provide $2.5 billion, a 1.4 percent increase.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That leaves the negative factor at $672 million, the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year.

During the hearing, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, asked Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards why teacher raises seem to come last when districts get more money, and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, asked if the legislature needs to have more oversight of how districts spend state money. Colorado does not have a statewide teacher salary schedule, and districts have a lot of discretion on how they set their budgets.

“The people on the ground are hurting,” Garnett said. “They can’t meet their basic needs. And I want to help them, but it’s really your members who hold the key to their solution.”

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school spending and teacher pay, and a recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Cook said school boards are acutely aware of how low pay hurts their ability to hire and keep teachers. The availability of more money from the state will be a factor in union negotiations currently underway in districts around the state, he said.

But districts have to balance teacher pay with a wide range of needs, including services for students learning English and students with disabilities that are not funded by the state at their full cost, he said.

“We recognize that a qualified, highly motivated teacher in the classroom is a major part of a child’s education,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to not pay teachers.”

School district representatives told the committee that a promising state budget forecast is already turning into more services for students. An official from the Adams 12 Five Star district said the district had increased interventions for students with dyslexia in anticipation of more state money, and a superintendent from the rural Hanover district said $30 million in extra funding for rural schools – first allocated last year and now extended for a second year – allowed him to hire a second science teacher and a school counselor.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, the Republican co-sponsor of the school finance act and a former district superintendent, said he could just as easily ask lawmakers why the entire $1.3 billion budget surplus isn’t going to schools.

“I won’t ask you to answer that because you already know the answer,” he said. “That’s the same situation that a school district finds itself in.”

The school finance act also:

  • Sends an extra $30 million to rural schools,
  • Creates 1,000 new spots for children with certain risk factors in publicly funded preschool and kindergarten,
  • Allocates money for English language learners based on the actual number of students at various levels of need, rather than dividing it based on a formula,
  • Calls for any general fund surplus at the end of this budget year to go into education next year,
  • Requires that the negative factor for 2019-20 not be any larger than it is in 2018-19.

The school finance act still needs to pass the full House before it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.