The Indianapolis Public Schools board is expected to vote tonight to share local property-tax revenue with “innovation network schools,” charter schools that operate in partnership with the district. Under the proposal, the schools would get $500 per pupil, per year, from an IPS referendum approved in 2018.
There are 25 IPS innovation charter schools, serving about 10,000 students, so the plan would cost the district around $5 million a year. The referendum raised property taxes and brings in about $30 million a year to help fund IPS operating costs, including teacher salaries, until 2026.
Is it the right thing to do?
The argument for sharing the funds is that the innovation schools are part of the “IPS family of schools,” and their students deserve the same funding as district students. IPS can count the schools’ students as part of its enrollment, but the schools operate independently, governed by their own boards.
It’s true that IPS schools get more per-pupil funding than the innovation schools, but how much more is a matter of debate. According to an analysis done for IPS by the consultants Education Resource Strategies, an apples-to-apples comparison finds innovation schools receive $13,947 per pupil, on average, compared to $15,424 for IPS schools – a difference of about 10%.
That’s significant, but it’s not huge in the world of school finance. Providing the schools with $500 per pupil from the referendum would reduce the gap by about one-third.
There’s a lot more variation in funding among the innovation schools than between innovation and IPS schools, according to the analysis, which was included in a presentation last week to the IPS board. Funding for innovation schools appears to vary from $9,500 to over $16,000 per pupil. Several better-funded innovation schools count IPS in-kind funding for buildings, transportation and other services.
Can they do it?
When IPS asked voters to approve the funding referendum, I don’t think sharing the money with charter or innovation schools was discussed. It wasn’t something people were talking about.
A school board resolution said the money would be used “for the purpose of funding academic and educationally related programs, including the attracting and retention of teachers, expanding academic programs, and providing support for students with special needs.” That’s rather vague.
Two years later, the Indiana General Assembly generated attention when it voted to allow school districts to voluntarily share referendum revenue with charter schools (not just innovation schools). It was one of the more controversial actions of the 2020 session. The key vote, in the overwhelmingly GOP Senate, was 25-25; Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch broke the tie to allow the funding.
The IPS administration referenced the legislation, House Enrolled Act 1065, in its presentation last week on sharing referendum funds with innovation network schools. Under that law, a school board must indicate its intention to share funds with charter schools in advance.
Rep. Ed DeLaney, declared the IPS revenue-sharing plan was “unilateral and unlawful,” presumably because the district never spelled out its intentions. He told Chalkbeat Indiana, “Not one single taxpayer was told the truth about where that money was going,” But supporters of the IPS plan counter that the 2020 legislation applies only to subsequent referendums, not those that, like the IPS referendum, occurred before 2020.
A section of state law dealing with innovation network schools says school districts can share their property tax funding with the schools; that would arguably include referendum funds. “For as long as a charter school remains a participating innovation network charter school, the school corporation may distribute money levied as property taxes to the charter school,” says the law, dating from 2016.
Elections have consequences. Advocacy groups, including Stand for Children Indiana, have been pressing IPS to share referendum dollars and equalize school funding. An IPS statement on the proposal hinted that there’s also been pressure from state legislators. But the key push has come from IPS board members, four of whom were elected in 2020 on a platform of supporting innovation schools.
“For months, I have requested and fought for referendum dollars to be shared with Innovation schools that are serving majority Black, Hispanic, and low-income students,” member Kenneth Allen wrote last week in an op-ed in the Indianapolis Recorder. “I am displeased these dollars have yet to be shared.”
Allen and the three other slate members spent about a half million dollars on their campaigns, with much of their funding coming from billionaire supporters of charter schools. Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson helped arrange the campaign funding. Peterson, the president and CEO of Christel House Academy, which operates a number of international and charter schools, including IPS innovation network schools, told me that closing the funding gap between charter schools and traditional public schools was the key reason for his political contributions.
Innovation network schools are unusual; I don’t think many people, even in Indianapolis, understand how they work. (To learn more, see this February 2020 “cheat sheet” on from Chalkbeat Indiana). But there are also dozens of Indianapolis charter schools that are not part of the IPS network, at least not yet? With help from the 2020 state law, could they make the same claim to IPS referendum funding? I won’t be surprised if the IPS board is faced with that question soon.