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.”

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.