charter closure

In debt, with too many unlicensed teachers, Indiana College Preparatory School loses charter

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Roiled by unsustainable debts, a disintegrating school board, and violations of state requirements, Indiana College Preparatory School lost its charter and will close at the end of the school year.

Families were also complaining about frequent teacher turnover, discipline issues, and a lack of services for students with disabilities, according to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office.

The future seemed uncertain, too, for I CAN Schools, the nonprofit company contracted to run the school, after some of its struggling schools in Ohio were absorbed by another company.

The mayor’s office, which authorized Indiana College Preparatory School’s charter, said it tried to work with the school for nearly two years to improve its finances and governance. But it revoked the charter Tuesday after the school’s entire board resigned.

The shutdown in June will leave about 240 students looking for new schools.

The mayor’s office decided not to shutter the school immediately to try to minimize disruptions for students, who begin ISTEP testing next week, said Brian Dickey, interim director of the mayor’s charter school office.

School leaders did not return calls or an email seeking comment.

Indiana College Preparatory School, which serves grades K-8, opened in the 2015-16 school year. It had replaced a closed charter school, Andrew Academy, near 38th Street and Sherman Drive, and many of the students stayed to enroll at Indiana College Preparatory School.

It was put on probation last year.

“We’d started seeing red flags on the financial side,” Dickey said.

The school seemed unable to pay its bills in the short-term, and accumulating debt raised concerns about long-term financial health, he said.

It ended its first year with only four days’ worth of cash on hand, according to city documents. At one point, the school was running a deficit of about $780,000.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which owns the school building, reached out to the mayor’s office when Indiana College Preparatory Academy didn’t pay its rent.

An audit filed in February 2017 showed Indiana College Preparatory School was not in compliance with the state’s guidelines for charter school accounting, highlighting questions about the schools’ internal controls.

Indiana College Preparatory School was receiving more than $2 million from the state for its students, the audit showed. The school had also received a $174,000 federal charter school grant, according to city documents, and it took out a $500,000 loan from the state’s Common School Fund.

Dickey and Deputy Mayor of Community Development Jeff Bennett said some of the school’s financial problems stemmed from an unexpected drop in enrollment.

“New charter schools are start-up organizations, and they are very sensitive to enrollment,” Dickey said. “And if that enrollment isn’t maintained, particularly in the early onset, it can really complicate things on the finance side.”

In the school’s second year, it lost about one-quarter of its students by the spring, the mayor’s office said.

Considering that Indiana College Preparatory School offered transportation, Bennett said, “for 25 percent to vote with their feet not to come back is just a red flag. For whatever reason, we don’t know. But it’s beyond the norm of any school to drop that much.”

Last year, the mayor’s office found out that I CAN Schools, the nonprofit organization that managed Indiana College Preparatory School, had transferred seven Ohio schools to another company, in part because of financial deficits.

The mayor’s office was already concerned that the Ohio operator was unfamiliar with Indiana policies. But now, Dickey said, he questioned if I CAN’s educational offerings would be diminished without a broader network to rely on.

I CAN said it intended to rebrand itself, but never did, Dickey said.

Indiana College Preparatory School’s board tried to address the city’s concerns about governance and teacher hiring, but Dickey said the mayor’s office was unsatisfied with the response.

Academically, the school was receiving low ratings from the state. Its students weren’t showing much growth. The school was hiring many substitute teachers, city documents show, failing to employ enough teachers licensed in their subject areas to meet state requirements.

And the school’s financial situation, Dickey said, only grew worse.

When the mayor’s office put the school under “threat of potential revocation” last month, three out of four board members resigned. Unable to operate with a sole board member, the last remaining one resigned this week.

“Anytime a school has to close, I don’t know that that’s ever a good thing,” said Jamyce Curtis Banks, the former board president. She declined to answer questions about the school’s challenges, saying they should be directed to the school or I CAN instead.

Other former board members did not return messages.

A parent who recently pulled her children out of Indiana College Preparatory School said the school needed to be shut down.

La’Key Eldridge said her second-grade son did not have a special education teacher, and she felt the school wasn’t equipped to handle his disorders.

“I knew that my son needed special education help, because he wasn’t picking up on certain vocabulary words,” she said.

Eldridge transferred her two sons to another charter school, and she said her son with special education needs will have to repeat the second grade.

She also raised concerns over how the school handled an incident in the fall reported by Fox59, when two students at the school tested positive for cocaine after eating what they thought was candy.

The last time the mayor’s office revoked a charter was in 2014, because of allegations of systemic cheating on standardized tests at Flanner House Elementary Charter School. That school closed immediately, leaving families scrambling to find new schools after the academic year had already started.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that I CAN Schools is a for-profit company. It is a nonprofit company.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.