Future of Schools

One system to apply for IPS and charter schools? Nearly 4,000 students gave it a shot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Princess Glenn hopes to enroll her son at Super School 19.

A new website designed to help families across Indianapolis apply for schools drew applications from 3,862 students in the first round.

The applications to OneMatch slightly exceeded the goal of 3,500, marking the successful launch of a project that has been in planning for more than two years. The deadline was Tuesday for the first application window using the new system.

The OneMatch application, which is run by the nonprofit Enroll Indy, aims to make it easier for families to choose and apply for schools in a city where there is a growing selection of options for students. It allows families to apply for more than 50 charter and Indianapolis Public School district schools through the same website or enrollment office.

Applicants rank their top choice schools, and an algorithm then matches students with schools. This round, families applied to an average of just under three schools per child for a total of 10,518 applications.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook yesterday, and we had parents in our office all day,” Enroll Indy founder Caitlin Hannon wrote in an email the day after applications were due.

In the nine weeks leading up to the first application deadline, staff from Enroll Indy fanned out across the city to tell parents about the process. Since the application opened Nov. 15, they reached about 8,500 families through canvassing and phone banks, and held about 29 intake sessions in partnership with schools and community groups, according to Hannon.

It was during one of those intake sessions that Princess Glenn met staff from Enroll Indy. A parent with two children in IPS, Glenn was a panelist at a meeting about choosing schools on Wednesday organized by UNCF and the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports charter schools and helped fund Enroll Indy.

When Enroll Indy visited her school, Glenn applied for new schools for two of her children. For her daughter, who is in 3rd grade, she chose a charter school. And for her son, who is in 6th grade, she chose a district magnet with a focus on physical activity.

“My son is one of those kids that, he likes to stay busy,” she said. “For something like that to be available for our kids nowadays, I just think that it’s great.”

Families who applied through OneMatch will receive a single school offer on Feb. 15. Enroll Indy will run two additional application windows in the coming months for families who did not meet the first deadline or would like to reapply.

Common enrollment systems, which allow students to apply for district and charter schools in a single location, have been embraced in several cities in recent years, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. But their success hinges on collaboration between district and charter school leaders. Efforts to create similar systems have stalled in cities such as Detroit and Boston.

Enroll Indy staff members say the aim is to help students who are about to start elementary, middle or high school find the right fit. But one fear among critics of common enrollment systems is that they will make it easier for charter schools to woo parents like Glenn away from traditional public schools. On the other hand, charter schools also fear losing control over the admissions process.

Although OneMatch has gotten some pushback from Indianapolis parents and community members, the effort encountered relatively little public opposition from leaders. Most Indianapolis charter schools are participating, and the IPS school board not only voted to join OneMatch, but also allowed Enroll Indy to lease space in the central office for an enrollment center.

Parents in Indianapolis now face a panoply of school choices. Nearly 13,000 students who live in IPS boundaries attend charter schools, including innovation schools that are overseen by the district. At the same time, the city’s largest district has also expanded choices by creating new magnet schools, and next year, all high school students will choose specialized programs with focus areas such as the arts or information technology.

At the community event Wednesday, Patrick Herrel, who heads enrollment for the district, said that Enroll Indy is the latest effort to make applying for schools easier for Indianapolis families. As recently as four years ago, families who wanted to apply for magnet schools had to turn in paper applications at the district office.

“As those number of choices have grown, we have had to become more sophisticated in our way of helping parents access those choices,” he said. “I think Enroll Indy really represents the next step.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.