How much should Indiana spend to turn around a handful of its lowest-performing schools? Whatever it takes, members of the State Board of Education are suggesting. And that attitude may put them on a collision course with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz.
The issue took up much of Monday’s state board meeting, where representatives of Indiana TSOs – turnaround school operators – insisted on being first in line when the state Department of Education hands out federal grants this summer.
The board, then led by previous Superintendent Tony Bennett, decided in 2011 to turn several under-achieving Indianapolis and Gary schools over to TSOs: Charter Schools USA, Edison Learning and Indy nonprofit EdPower. The hand-off took place last fall.
Monday’s discussion focused on Section 1003(a) School Improvement Grant funds, which the state receives from the federal government and awards to local schools. Last year, under Bennett, more than half the money went to the five turnaround academies – presumably to help them get off the ground. Each of the schools got about $1.4 million, while a majority of schools that qualified for the grants received $5,000 each (see chart).
Board members said Monday they had made a commitment to the turnaround schools, and they leaned hard on Ritz to give the schools as much as they got last year.
“If you have a strategic priority and you don’t fund it, that’s dereliction of duty,” said David Shane.
“We have a commitment to come through,” added Daniel Elsener. “It’s got to be clear, it’s got to be swift and it’s got to be certain. The young people in these neighborhoods need this.”
Members also suggested Ritz should commit the funding now, so schools can plan their 2013-14 budgets. Marcus Robinson, CEO of EdPower, which operates Indianapolis Arlington High School, said the school was told in May 2012 how much SIG money it would get for 2012-13.
That’s a bit confusing, because documents on the Department of Education website suggest applications for last year’s SIG grants weren’t due until last July. Did Bennett and his staff simply assure the turnaround schools they’d get the money regardless of the application process?
Robinson even suggested EdPower might walk away from its contract with the state if the SIG money doesn’t come through. “We simply cannot operate the school without access to those School Improvement Grant dollars,” he said.
But Ritz balked at promising funding. “I guess my question is, how do you make assurances to schools prior to the process being formally implemented?” she said.
This is a good time to point out that, in addition to the SIG grants, the four Indianapolis turnaround schools got a considerable windfall in ordinary state dollars last year – because their enrollment dropped precipitously after the state takeover, yet their fall funding was based on 2011-12 numbers. Arlington, for example, got almost $15,000 per student under its 2012-13 contract – well over double the state per-pupil average. State funding will fall back to normal levels this fall, all the more reason the turnaround schools are looking to SIG grants for help.
So, with that additional money, are the schools turning around? At Arlington, Robinson said EdPower has changed a climate that, by his description, used to be like something out of Fort Apache, the Bronx. But might some of that change resulted from the departure of almost two-thirds of the school’s students?
Arlington had 1,224 students in 2011-12. When EdPower took over last fall, the number had dropped to 521. “Less than half, 240, of those first day students made it to the last day of school,” Scott Elliott wrote in the Indianapolis Star. “A larger share, 278, were expelled, withdrew or otherwise left.” By the end of the school year, enrollment was down to 446.
It’s great that the state board wants to commit time and resources to building successful schools in troubled neighborhoods; and of course, everyone wants the TSOs to succeed. But you’d think board members might show some concern or curiosity about the students who disappeared from the schools since 2011-12. For the four Indianapolis TSO-run schools, that’s nearly 2,000 kids – more than were enrolled in the schools this spring.
Tests scores at Arlington have started inching up, Robinson said. But challenges remain. According to the school’s report to the Department of Education:
// Nearly one-third of students are in special education.
// For seventh- and eighth-graders, where almost as many suspensions were handed down last year as there were students.
// Attendance was only 84 percent for students – well below what it was in IPS days – and only “approximately 85 percent” for faculty and staff.
One last observation: These state board members were appointed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels, and they’re solidly in the “reform” camp, where it’s an article of faith that school funding doesn’t matter, class size doesn’t matter and a lack of money should never be an excuse for poor performance.
Except when it comes to their strategic priority of school turnaround. Then, all of a sudden, money matters. Oh, yes, it matters a lot.
Note: Descriptions and quotes in this post are from video of the June 24 board meeting posted on the Indiana Department of Education website.