investigation finding

Why Indiana officials pulled a private school’s vouchers and accreditation

PHOTO: Phil Roeder/Creative Commons

As state policymakers have expanded avenues for private schools to access state dollars, state officials decided Wednesday to take vouchers away from one northwest Indiana school accused of numerous violations.

Midwest Elite Preparatory Academy, a private school in Crown Point, is accused of violating  state law by failing to test students, report student data so the school could receive a letter grade, and return excess voucher payments, according to an investigation by the Indiana Department of Education. The Indiana State Board of Education agreed with the assessment, voting unanimously on Wednesday to revoke the school’s accreditation and ability to accept taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Read: Six things to know about Indiana’s school voucher program

“Midwest Elite is anything but elite,” said board member Gordon Hendry. “This conduct by this school and its administration is really outrageous. So the action we’re taking is 100 percent justified.”

Representatives from the school were not present at the meeting in Columbus and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. But in comments to the Post-Tribune, the school’s director, Ronda Payne, said Midwest Elite couldn’t test students on computers, and said they got conflicting instructions from the state about how to test. Payne told the Tribune the school has now returned the voucher funds and previously mailed test results to the state.

Department of Education officials assured board members that they were reaching out to families, who would have the option to transfer their voucher dollars to a new private school or switch to a public school, which would receive additional state funds for them.

Midwest Elite, which received about $140,000 from the state last year, won’t receive any voucher money this year, said Tim Schultz, general counsel for the state board who presented on the investigation to board members Wednesday.

Schultz also said that as of Wednesday morning, the school was seeking accreditation from another entity not affiliated with the state. While that would mean the school wouldn’t need to rely on the state’s typical private school accreditation option, known as freeway accreditation, it wouldn’t resolve issues with state tests, which must be administered if a school wants to receive vouchers.

Read: How vouchers transformed Indiana: Private schools now live or die by test scores, too

In some ways, the allegations against Midwest Elite are a textbook example of the potential perils of a statewide education voucher program. Public school advocates can point to Wednesday’s vote as a victory — mishandling state dollars confirms their fears about mixing public and private entities. And for champions of school choice, the allegations are so damning  that they could draw attention away from the opportunities they believe vouchers provide to families.

Even before Wednesday’s revelations, the school had been struggling for several years — in enrollment alone, it has dropped to 29 students in 2018 from 90 in 2014. The school is so small, in fact, that there is next to no public data available on its performance. What we do know is the school serves students in grades K-12, and it was first accredited in 2013, one of the prerequisites for being able to offer vouchers.

According to the state investigation, Midwest Elite did not properly test students last year. Officials said the school didn’t register for testing or explain to the state how it would administer the test.

School administrators did, on the last day of the first testing window, contact the state and request paper tests, which they were told would not arrive in time to meet the testing deadline, the state said in its investigation.

The state education department visited the school several months later, finding no evidence that the school was following state rules about giving ISTEP or preparing to do so. A few months after that, the state’s investigation said the school also failed to give students the required state reading exam. Payne also disputes this, telling the Tribune the results were mailed to the state.

Outside of testing, the state report found that the school didn’t keep records of its voucher students, or properly document when they left the school. Administrators were late on reporting enrollment and mobility data to the state, among other information, which meant the state couldn’t audit the school, the investigation found.

At each point of noncompliance, the state stepped in and asked Midwest Elite to send in a plan to correct its mistakes, officials said. It didn’t do that either, according to the state investigation.

The school also didn’t return excess voucher dollars to the department, which eventually led to the Attorney General’s office stepping in. When the school did eventually try to pay back the funds, the state says its bank accounts couldn’t cover the costs. The school then tried to use its principal’s personal bank account instead — a request the state denied, according to the investigation.

State board staff’s memo containing recommendations to the board were unequivocal:

“Midwest Elite’s accreditation and status as an eligible Choice Scholarship school should be revoked immediately.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”