School Finance

Here’s what led to Indiana’s heated debate about sending federal dollars to struggling schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana education officials are cautiously moving forward with a plan to send millions of extra dollars to the state’s most struggling schools next year — but how much, and to which schools, caused a contentious debate.

The Indiana State Board of Education is planning to direct more than $6.1 million in federal school improvement funds to schools where the state has intervened because of poor academic performance. Called turnaround academies, they include schools in state takeover as well as those with state-approved partnerships with charter school operators and other intensive supports. The funding, though, is a 6 percent decrease — or nearly $400,000 less — than what was allocated last year.

There are still questions about whether the plan, created by state board staff members, will pass muster under a new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, which classifies schools eligible for school improvement funding differently than Indiana has in the past.

Until federal officials sign-off on the funding plan, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, the Indiana Department of Education, which is tasked with handling federal Title I funding, won’t be doling out the extra funds to struggling schools just yet.

“That’s the big unknown right now,” said McCormick, the lone state board member who voted against the plan. “We will submit everything to the feds. As far as the recommendations that came out, until I have it in writing from the feds, we’re on pause … You don’t want the department of education at the state level to willy-nilly distribute federal funds.”

The board’s decision to follow its staff’s recommendations regarding the funding, rather than the education department’s, followed heated arguments between state board staff members and department officials. The two groups couldn’t agree on how much funding the turnaround schools should get — or if some of the schools were eligible to get any extra money at all.

The department said that under the federal ESSA law, schools can only receive the turnaround funds if they are in the lowest 5 percent of all Title I schools, receive an F letter grade from the state or a have a graduation rate of 67 percent or less. Indiana, though, considered Title I schools with F grades and any schools under state intervention to be eligible. It isn’t clear if the federal education department will allow three schools that meet Indiana’s threshold but not ESSA’s to continue receiving the funds.

“I think there are legal questions to still be answered,” said Nathan Williamson, director of Title grants and support for the state.

Also complicating matters, the state received less money from the federal government to give out for school improvement efforts overall — $17.4 million instead of $18.5 million. Plus, more schools are likely to qualify for those grants this year, primarily due to the new way the federal government is requiring the state to classify low-performing schools coupled with a dip in graduation rate. The state will have a final number in October, but department officials said it was probably going to be about 100 more schools, in addition to around 200 last year.

Because of the funding crunch, education department officials wanted to reduce the money sent just to schools under state intervention to $4 million instead of $6.1 million. That way, they said, there would be more leftover so that other low-rated schools that need help — but don’t qualify for state intervention — can apply for potential funds.

“All of them need at least some support,” said Williamson. “Otherwise, we’ll get them some support (when it’s too late), and it’ll be four years later and students, in the meantime, are the ones who suffer.”

But state board staff members argued that Indiana made a commitment to the schools under state intervention, and keeping their funding more consistent with what it has been in the past is the board’s responsibility.

“These are schools that we’re responsible for,” said board member Tony Walker, who represents Northwest Indiana. “How do we deliver a better school back to the district when we’re taking $1 million out from the people running the schools?”

The biggest discrepancy in funding proposals was for Charter Schools USA, the charter company that stepped in to manage three Indianapolis Public Schools when they were taken over by the state in 2011. The state board, which hired CSUSA, suggested maintaining the funding at close to the same rate. But the department of education suggested slashing CSUSA’s funding by $1.8 million for the three schools, in order to direct funds to other struggling schools.

McCormick said the department’s suggestions were based primarily on the number of schools that operators were in charge of. CSUSA, for example, is responsible for three schools. Indianapolis Public Schools, in charge of seven, would have gotten $1.4 million under the department’s plan. (The state board plan has them at $1.2 million.)

State board staff said their recommendations were more aligned with what the turnaround schools had budgeted themselves.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.