what's next?

The fate of these Indianapolis schools is once again uncertain, years after state takeover

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Manual High School was taken over by the state in 2012.

Seven years after Indiana seized control of four failing schools from the Indianapolis Public Schools district, state officials must now decide the fate of three of those campuses.

State control of Emma Donnan Middle School and Howe and Manual high schools, which are managed by an outside charter network, is expected to end in just over a year. But just what will happen next is still uncertain.

It’s the final leg of a tumultuous journey for Indianapolis after the state, in a radical step, took over four failing schools with the promise that new managers would be able to succeed where the district had failed.

So far, the three schools have had mixed academic results. The state grades at Manual, which enrolls about 700 students, and Emma Donnan, which has about 300, have risen to Cs, but Howe, which has about 600, has gotten an F every year since it was taken over.

Now, it’s up to the Indiana State Board of Education to decide the future of the schools. The board will vote to instruct operator Charter Schools USA to take the steps needed to continue running the schools, to close the campuses, or to return them to the district, which will likely also result in their closure. So far, parents, alumni, and residents have favored allowing the schools to stay with Charter Schools USA so that they will remain open.

A special task force is expected to make a recommendation to the board next month. The state has previously extended the contract with CSUSA, delaying the decision over what to do with the schools.

“The community is really excited about the future of these schools and cares deeply about these schools,” said state board member David Freitas.

The task force has collected extensive feedback through a series of meetings at the schools and in the surrounding neighborhoods, said Charles Schlegel, a consultant brought in to run the process.

Katie Parker said at a forum on Wednesday in the southside neighborhood near Manual and Emma Donna that she wants the schools to remain with CSUSA because it is the only option that would keep them open. She and her husband want the neighborhood to have a school once they have children.

“We also paid for our house and want it to keep up its value,”  she added. “So it’d be really nice if there weren’t … abandoned buildings around the neighborhood.”

Aryn Schounce, a task force member representing neighborhoods on the south side, said some people want more options for the future of Manual, such as new partnerships with other charter schools to share the under-used building or a technical training school that harkens back to the southside high school’s history.

“There’s just a big question about what really is the vision and what distinguishes CSUSA from other charter operators and what distinguishes them from IPS,” she said. But ultimately, “I don’t think anyone in the community wants to see these schools close.”

Residents have raised concerns, however, about the long-term financial sustainability of the schools. If they become charter schools, they would lose out on special funding they are getting because they are overseen by the state. Schlegel estimated funding would go down by 10 to 12 percent.

Ed Mahern, a longtime resident of the Garfield Park neighborhood, said that many nearby families send their children to other school districts or charter schools, rather than Manual. He is concerned the building is far too large for the number of students it now serves.

He questioned how the schools would be able to afford to continue operating. “A charter school is going to get less money per student than what they’ve been getting,” he said.

Eric Lewis, the state director of Indiana for CSUSA, said the schools would be financially sustainable even if they only receive the per-student funding and state grants for which charter schools are eligible. They would have to cut back on some services, such as eliminating some master teachers and ending bus transportation for students who stay after school for tutoring.

“We use school improvement dollars specifically for the turnaround,” Lewis said. “When you don’t have those anymore, just like every other school in the state, you have to use what you have to be able to drive sustainability.”

The fourth school that had been taken over by the state, Arlington High School, was handed back to the district and eventually closed after the local charter operator pulled out.

Although the high schools face the possibility of closure if returned to the district, the situation with Emma Donnan is slightly different. In 2015, CSUSA opened an elementary school in the building that is part of the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network. As an innovation school, it is overseen by the district but managed by an outside operator. If the agreement is renewed, the elementary school could expand to eighth grade, essentially absorbing the original middle school.

There has been a sea change in strategy since the schools were taken over 2012. The state has not taken any campuses from Indianapolis Public Schools, instead relying on less extreme measures, such as a “transformation zone,” which offers extra coaching and oversight at the district’s most troubled schools.

At the same time, local officials have become more aggressive in their response to chronically failing schools. Indianapolis Public Schools has brought in charter operators to run six failing schools. While the model mirrors state takeover in some ways, the district maintains oversight over innovation schools.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.