Schools push back against plan to cut free-lunch eligibility

School officials say the Community Eligibility Program for providing students with free lunch and breakfast has been a resounding success. It has reduced paperwork, provided more students with healthy meals and kept more money in the hands of families.

But legislation introduced by Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita would cut back on the program, eliminating the option for over 18,000 schools and hundreds of thousands of children nationwide, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In Indiana, at least 120 schools serving 58,000 students – nearly half the schools and students that currently participate – could be bounced out of the program.

Community Eligibility was created by a 2010 reauthorization of the federal school nutrition law and became available to schools nationwide in 2014-15. It enables high-poverty schools and school districts to offer free meals to all their students without forcing families to show they meet income requirements.

The law says schools and districts are eligible if at least 40 percent of their students are directly certified as eligible for free school meals; that typically means their families participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or the students are homeless or in foster care.

Under Rokita’s proposal, that threshold would rise to 60 percent.

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Indiana teacher grants comfort the comfortable

You hear a lot about the idea that teachers should be rewarded with higher pay for agreeing to work in the most challenging school districts, the ones with the highest percentages of poor children.

We do things differently in Indiana. Under the state’s Teacher Performance Grant program, created by the legislature and included in state law, we are rewarding teachers in low-poverty schools.

It probably wasn’t intentional, but it’s worked out that way. The grants are awarded to school corporations according to a formula that includes the passing rate on ISTEP exams, high school graduation rates and year-to-year improvement on both.

In practice, the more affluent schools – which tend to have higher test scores and graduation rates – get the bigger grants. The school corporations decide how to divvy up the money among teachers who are rated highly effective or effective.

The Indiana Department of Education informed schools of this year’s calculated performance grants in February. Based on a little sorting, here are some trends: Continue reading

More confusion on Title I allocations

The fallout continues from the Indiana Department of Education’s allocation of federal Title I funds for 2015-16, and nowhere near all the questions have been answered.

In the latest development, the department announced Monday that it is asking the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from restrictions on how some schools can spend the money. This is a belated attempt to help schools – most of them charter schools – that got a smaller-than-expected Title I planning allocation last year and a big bump when allocations were adjusted this spring.

The announcement says the department is asking for the waiver. But then it also asks the public for input on whether it should ask for the waiver, by May 16. So that’s a little confusing.

According to the department, Title I funds that are allocated for 2015-16 but aren’t spent by the end of the school year can be carried over and used during the following year. Typically, schools aren’t supposed to carry over more than 15 percent of their total allocation.

They can get permission to carry over more than 15 percent, but no more than once every three years. It’s that once-in-three-years limit that the state is asking the feds to waive, if I’m reading the announcement correctly.

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Title I adjustments aren’t small change

Information released recently by the Indiana Department of Education suggests that more than a handful of charter schools were shorted on their Title I funding allocations last fall.

A few of the schools complained publicly, federal education officials stepped in and the department made some adjustments this spring. Fifty-two of the 63 charter schools that receive Title I funds saw their funding increase from what they were told to expect last fall. Most saw an increase of 20 percent or more.

Where did the adjustments come from? Largely from money that had been promised to public school districts, apparently in error. Total Title I allocations for charter schools increased by $4.5 million or 27.2 percent, by my calculations. Allocations for public school districts declined by $6.2 million or 2.8 percent.

There were bigger changes were for four turnaround schools, public schools that were taken over by the state and are run by private school management organizations. Their Title I allocations nearly doubled.

None of these figures are final, the state says. The numbers that the department reported to schools last fall were “planning allocations,” intended to help school districts and charter schools plan how to spend their Title I money. And the new amounts reported this spring are “updated planning allocations.”

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Voucher program promotes religion, not better education

Supporters of Indiana’s school voucher program can no longer pretend that it’s intended to provide parents with the best education for their children no matter where they live.

No, it’s about using public dollars to pay for religious education, pure and simple. More and more every year, vouchers are going to parents who never intended to send their kids to public schools. They are taking advantage of the program to get religious instruction at taxpayer expense.

Look, for example, at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, which enrolled 25 new voucher students last fall. The school has nearly 100 students receiving vouchers and received almost $400,000 in state-funded tuition assistance this year.

The school’s principal, Joyce Huck, told the Bloomington Herald-Times that most of the new students were from families that previously home-schooled their kids.

“Before, looking at education that was faith-based was out of reach financially, and with the scholarships, they were able to make that happen,” Huck told reporter Mary Keck.

According to the annual voucher program report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education, 52 percent of the 32,686 current voucher students have no record of having attended a public school in the state.

Voucher students were eligible to receive $134.7 million in taxpayer-funded tuition assistance this year, the report said. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 300 private schools that enroll voucher students are religious schools. With maybe three exceptions, those are Christian schools, primarily Catholic, Lutheran or Evangelical Protestant.

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If we’re grading schools, why not just use growth?

The Indiana State Board of Education took a step toward fairness when it decided test-score growth should count as much as test-score performance for calculating school grades. But we’re not there yet. The new A-to-F grading system will still favor affluent schools. Like the old system, it will label some schools as failing largely because of how many poor children they serve.

The board wrapped up work on the new system Friday when it approved a “growth to proficiency table” that specifies how many points students will earn for various levels of growth. The board rejected an earlier proposal that favored high-scoring students and approved a more equitable approach.

A chart copied from a staff presentation to the board tells us a whole lot about grading schools on test scores. It shows that, when it comes to performance – the percentage of students who score “proficient” on state exams – there’s a huge gap in Indiana between black and white students, between poor and non-poor students, and between special-needs and general-education students.

Growth_Model_Summary_Presentation-12---cropped

Source: State Board of Education

The proficiency gap between white and black students is 26 percentage points in English/language arts and 32 points in math. The gap between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and those who don’t is about 25 percentage points. That’s cause for serious concern.

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Public access counselor: Charter school approval should be public

Cheers for Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor, for ruling that private colleges and universities should comply with the state Open Door Law when they decide to authorize charter schools.

And jeers for Grace College and Theological Seminary for responding that it just doesn’t care – it still will not disclose information about the college trustees’ approval of a charter for Seven Oaks Classical School, a proposed charter school in Monroe County.

I don’t always agree with the public access counselor – more on that soon – but Britt got this one right. When they approve charters, private colleges are creating schools that will receive public funding and be subject to state regulations. Those decisions should be made in public.

The opinion, in response to a complaint by WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle, doesn’t mention Grace College but refers to actions by Trine University, another Indiana private college that has entered the charter school business. But as the Bloomington Herald-Times reports, it’s clear the legal reasoning also applies to Grace and Seven Oaks.

An opinion by the public access counselor doesn’t have the force of law, however, and Grace College can ignore the decision. Someone could sue; but even if a judge were to rule the charter approval was illegal, Grace could presumably fix the problem by voting again in public.

Indiana legislators created this issue when they decided in 2011 that all private, nonprofit colleges and universities in the state could authorize charter schools. Lawmakers finally realized it was a problem after Seven Oaks and other charter schools began “authorizer shopping,” turning to private colleges when they were turned down by the state charter school board or a public university.

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