Follow the money

Indiana could see a push to stash state money in school choice ‘savings accounts’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

A plan that would allow families direct access to their child’s state education dollars to use for school-related expenses could be gaining traction in Indiana.

Two bills proposed in the Indiana General Assembly last year would’ve set up “education savings accounts” — focused on K-12 and unrelated to 529 college savings plans — that would create what some education reform advocates call “universal school choice.” The proposal would direct state money not through school channels, but deposit it into an account parents could freely access.

Supporters of the idea argue it provides more options to families to choose how to best educate their children. But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.

The idea is becoming more popular in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. So far, Arizona’s and Nevada’s programs are the most expansive, applying to more than just students with special needs.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit lobbying group that pairs legislators and business owners together to write model legislation, highlighted the education savings accounts in their yearly summer conference, held in Indianapolis last week.

ALEC, strongly opposed by teachers unions and school choice critics, has considerable influence in Indiana, with several key lawmakers participating in the group and elements of the group’s model laws inspiring some of Indiana’s education reforms in recent years.

The group also admires and has sought to promote Indiana’s legislative work on education, even naming its model legislation for school choice programs the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

Neither Indiana bills was actively considered last year, but Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, and Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who serve as chairmen of the Senate and House education committees, said earlier this year that they were open to the ideas in the future. Indiana lawmakers must write a new budget in 2017. Legislation dealing with state funding is much more likely to be heard and move forward in budget years.

“It’s something we need to talk about,” Behning told Chalkbeat in January. “It’s worthy to look at options. It wouldn’t change the landscape significantly because we already have a lot of choice, it’s just the way we distribute it a little differently.”

It’s true that Indiana has lots of school choice options now. About 30,000 students use public money to pay private school tuition through the voucher program, and more than 37,000 attended public charter schools.

But the plans proposed by lawmakers last year could allow for more state education dollars to be controlled directly by parents than under the voucher or charter school systems. The bills also would make families with higher incomes eligible to direct their state education dollars somewhere other than their local public schools. In 2016-17, the base per-student aid each school district will receive is $5,088.

Joel Hand, with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said the programs are too unregulated and pose a threat to taxpayers and public schools.

“There’s nothing there to protect the taxpayer that their tax dollars are really going to be used for that intended purpose,” Hand said at an ICPE presentation earlier this summer. “All these things would work to drain significant funds from public schools.”

Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond earlier this year pushed a bill that was never considered by lawmakers in Senate Bill 397, which would’ve only allowed families with students who have special needs to participate in an education savings account program. That bill would not have limited the family income of participants.

House Bill 1311, which was authored by Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, but also was never considered, would’ve set up a much more expansive program with similarities to a model bill crafted by ALEC. It would have allowed all families to sign up to receive between 70 and 100 percent of the basic state aid amount set aside for each child’s public education if they earn no more than $97,000 for a family of four.

That is much more, for example, than what families can receive through Indiana’s private school tuition voucher program.

Under the voucher program, a family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. A family earning up to $89,725 per year is eligible for half the state aid their district would receive.

The House bill would’ve allowed families to spend the state money on private school tuition but also on lots of other things, such as curricular materials, exam fees (for Advanced Placement and other tests), services for students with disabilities or even college tuition. The flexibility would be a particular boon to families who homeschool their children.

Hand and his colleague at ICPE, Vic Smith, said the idea for K-12 education savings accounts would lead to too large an expansion of the state’s voucher program and divert too much funding from existing public schools risk wasting tax money without proper oversight.

“This work to bring us vouchers over the past several years has warmed us up for this,” Smith said. “We think that’s just going down the wrong road.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.