preschool funding

Another big push for expanding preschool aid is coming, but Indiana lawmakers remain skeptical

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers play at School 55 in Indianapolis Public Schools.

There is perhaps more bipartisan support in Indiana for preschool aid than any other education issue, but one key group remains unconvinced that it should expand — the legislature.

That became increasingly clear today when a coalition of business and community groups called on legislators during a meeting of an interim fiscal policy committee to support a plan to expand the state’s preschool pilot program by adding in more state money. An expanded program could support more children to attend more preschools in more counties and help the five counties where the pilot is now — including Marion County — to meet high demand.

The state’s preschool tuition support pilot program, along with a similar program instituted by the city of Indianapolis, “have demonstrated significant demand for high-quality preschool,” said Jay Geshay of the United Way of Central Indiana. “The success of this program makes it clear to us that it’s time to expand.”

But Republicans on the committee are still unsure of the benefits to be gained from state-funded preschool.

“If we’re going to put X number of dollars into preschool, we’re not putting it somewhere else,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers. “So what’s the argument to be made about why to make the investment here?”

The proposal would add more state money to pay preschool tuition for poor children and remove requirements that philanthropic groups and business match preschool funding. It would also raise the family income limit to about $44,900 from about $30,000 now, making more children eligible. The proposal did not come with an estimate for how much more it would cost the state.

Indiana lawmakers have long hesitated — or been downright opposed — to ponying up state money for preschool. In 2014, only a last-minute resurrection of a controversial bill made possible the current pilot program, and the $10 million to support it. That took Indiana off a list of just 10 states at the time that provided no direct aid for poor children to attend preschool.

The coalition of preschool advocates, who presented some details of their plan earlier this summer, said there is plenty of data to support the idea that preschool helps kids academically and socially. The presentation included data suggesting that every dollar Indiana spends on preschool would return four times as much in future savings. Preschool reduces the need for some special education, school remediation and juvenile justice expenses, the report said.

“Many kids enter kindergarten without knowing any letters or numbers,” said Connie Bond Stuart, the regional president for PNC Bank and board chair for the United Way of Central Indiana. “They have a difficult time ever catching up.”

Stuart and others said they were asking just for an expansion of what already exists, rather than a bolder move toward a universal state program, which is what state Superintendent Glenda Ritz has proposed.

Still, lawmakers remained unconvinced.

Some referenced a study from Tennessee last year that stunned preschool advocates with its findings that the state’s voluntary preschool program actually scored worse on academic and behavioral measures by third grade. Other studies show high quality preschool leads to long term benefits, such as avoiding jail, higher pay and more stable marriages, later in life.

Some lawmakers also argued the pilot needs more time to show results in Indiana.

“I don’t think we can even measure that yet,” said Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Muncie. “I can’t with a straight face tell anybody that we have a successful program yet.”

There are some important things to keep in mind before trying to compare Indiana and Tennessee, said Amanda Lopez, a consultant who worked on the coalition’s report. Indiana only awards funding to providers that have earned a level 3 or 4 rating on the state’s four-step Paths to Quality scale. That means the programs meet safety standards and have an academic program.

“The quality standards that Tennessee has are not the same as Indiana’s,” Lopez said. “Tennessee expanded their statewide pre-K program very quickly, where the infrastructure wasn’t really in place … They’re also funded at a much lower rate than in Indiana.”

After the meeting, Michael O’Connor, public affairs manager for Eli Lilly and an Indianapolis Public Schools Board member, said lawmakers need to consider the long-term, even if it seems costly now.

“The legislative officials have to sometimes step outside the boundaries of normal government decision-making,” O’Connor said. “What we’re asking the state to do is to look at this as a an investment.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: