School funding formula takes complex path to simpler focus

If you followed the legislature’s recent school funding debate, you may have noticed that Indiana will be allocating money to schools based in part on the number of students who receive food stamps or welfare benefits or who are in foster case.

That’s the latest revision of the Complexity Index, the part of the school funding formula that gives more money to schools facing bigger challenges. It’s a change from the way Indiana has distributed the money in the past, but not as big a change as it might appear.

Here’s the story.

A complexity story

Indiana’s Complexity Index dates from 1993 – it was originally called the At-Risk Index – and it has unquestionably been a good thing. An attempt to level the playing field by offering more resources to needy schools, it’s the reason Indiana gets credit for a funding system that’s fairer than most.

The index has been revised several times, but in recent years it was based on the percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. Students qualify for free lunches if their family income is no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level; they qualify for reduced-price lunches if income is no more than 185 percent of the poverty level.

But some lawmakers grew uncomfortable with using the federal lunch program to calculate the index. They were concerned that families couldn’t be made to show proof of income to qualify. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study found significant error rates in the program.

“There’s very little verification of who is eligible,” Sen. Luke Kenley, the chief Senate budget writer, told Franklin College’s Statehouse File. “And in recent years the number of kids on free and reduced lunch have been going up dramatically.”

So the legislature initially voted to shift the basis of the Complexity Index to the number of students who participate in the state’s free textbook program, effective this year.

Hoosier students qualify for free textbooks if they meet the income guidelines for free or reduced-price school lunch. Unlike the lunch program, however, the state-funded textbook program could be subject to extensive audits. Families could be required to prove they qualified.

But an unexpected issue arose, thanks to a change in the federal lunch program.

Community Eligibility

Starting last fall, high-poverty schools in Indiana could participate in the lunch program through Community Eligibility, which means all students in the school get free lunch, regardless of family income. The idea is that it’s less costly, more efficient and fairer than tracking who qualifies and who doesn’t.

Indianapolis Public Schools implemented Community Eligibility in all of its schools, and 13 other districts adopted the approach in some schools. Nineteen charter schools also participate. Continue reading

Charter school proposal still about ideology

Last fall the Indiana Charter School Board voted unanimously to reject a charter application from organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County. Now Seven Oaks is back with another request for the charter. But it’s hard to see what has changed that would lead to a different outcome this time around.

Organizers say the school will offer a “classical” education with heavy emphasis on Latin, character education and “civic virtue.” They hope to open in the fall of 2016 at the former site of Ellettsville Elementary School, which closed 13 years ago.

The Charter School Board cited the Seven Oaks board members’ lack of background in education and finance when they rejected the first proposal last year. Apparently in response, the school added to its board local accountant Fred Prall and former Fort Wayne charter-school official Guy Platter.

Prall may be a good accountant, but he is best known as a conservative political activist. He headed the Monroe County Taxpayers Association, a local government watchdog group active in the 1990s. He was the Republican candidate for mayor of Bloomington in 2003.

At a Charter School Board public hearing on the Seven Oaks proposal Monday, he said nothing about classical education but outlined his vision for a universal voucher system in which money would “follow the child” regardless of where the child’s parents choose to send him or her to school.

Platter, according to his resume, was founding principal of Imagine MASTer Academy, a charter school in Fort Wayne, and regional director of Imagine Schools in Indiana and Ohio. MASTer Academy and its sister school, Imagine School on Broadway, consistently got Ds and Fs from their performance. Continue reading

Report: Indiana vouchers a bad deal for students, public

A report released this week by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability puts 28 pages of research and data behind what public education advocates have been saying for years: Indiana’s school voucher program is a bad deal for the public and it’s not providing academic benefits to students.

Drawing on published studies and details about the Indiana program, the report addresses the question of whether private school choice in Indiana is leading to better educational outcomes for children and whether it’s an efficient use of public funds at a time when state budgets are constrained.

“As it turns out, the answer is no, when ideology is put aside and evidence of what has worked to enhance student achievement is used as a barometer,” it says.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability is a Chicago-based think tank that generally supports progressive policies. Ralph Martire, the center’s executive director, and Indiana legislators who have opposed vouchers presented the findings in a Statehouse news conference.

Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, attacked the report in an article posted later Tuesday, accusing it of using data selectively and misrepresenting school-choice studies.

The CTBA report relies heavily on a large nationwide study of public, charter and private schools by University of Illinois professors Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, published in 2006. The research “clearly shows that students who attend traditional, K-12 public schools outperform students who attend both charter schools and private religious schools,” it says. Continue reading

Harsh penalties for Atlanta educators convicted of cheating

The world is filled with injustices. But today my sense of outrage is reserved for the prison sentences handed down for Atlanta educators convicted of altering student test scores.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ordered 20-year sentences Tuesday for three of them, with the expectation that they will spend seven years in prison. Five others were sentenced to shorter prison terms and two got probation or home detention.

That’s right, 20-year sentences, with seven to serve. It’s what you might have gotten for killing someone in a slightly gentler and more forgiving era.

The teachers were found guilty of racketeering, an offense normally associated with organized crime. Baxter pronounced the maximum sentence even though the defendants had clean records and are clearly not a threat to cause violence to anyone.

Yes, cheating is wrong, even criminal. Atlanta parents deserve accurate information about whether their children are learning what they should. And it’s true that some educators may have benefited financially and by reputation – especially former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was charged but died from cancer before she went to trial.

But as a New Yorker article last summer made heartbreakingly clear, teachers weren’t motivated solely by greed. They worried about losing their jobs if test scores were too low. And they worried most about their students, who faced the prospect of having their neighborhood schools shut down. Continue reading

CREDO report boosts Indy charter schools

Indianapolis charter schools got a vote of confidence from a recent report by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, better known as CREDO. The study concluded urban charter schools are outperforming neighboring public schools, and Indy charters are doing better than most.

“It confirms a lot of the results we’re seeing on the ground,” said Brandon Brown, director of charter schools for the Indianapolis mayor’s office. “If you look across the state, the performance of charter schools is mixed. But if you look specifically at Indianapolis charter schools, they tend to consistently outperform traditional public schools.”

CREDO has critics. Some say it exaggerates the difference in performance between charter schools and public schools*. Others question its methodology, which compares charter students to statistically constructed “virtual twins” in public schools. There’s also concern that CREDO’s approach distracts from what makes schools effective and contributes to the “charter wars” – a zero-sum battle for reputation and students.

But the studies carry a lot of cachet and typically get a lot of press coverage. The center and its director, Macke Raymond, have been churning out detailed reports on charter schools for years. They have a giant database of student records and use a methodology that’s complex and hard to second-guess.

In the latest study, CREDO looked at charter schools in 41 urban areas from 2006 to 2011 and concluded that, in many cities, charters are doing a better job of boosting test scores than nearby public schools serving similar students. The study says that, overall, urban charter schools are providing students with the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning in math and 28 days in reading.

Continue reading

Pay lags – badly – for Indiana teachers

Indiana used to have a reputation for paying its public school teachers reasonably well. Not today. Hoosier teachers have seen some of the biggest pay losses in the country over the past 10 years.

That’s according to the 2014-15 “Rankings and Estimates” report published this month by the National Education Association. The report tracks data for the U.S. schools and the education workforce.

One figure really jumps out. Indiana teachers are making 13 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than they did a decade ago. That’s the second-worst record in the nation, ahead of only North Carolina, where real wages have fallen by 17 percent.

Teresa Meredith (courtesy ISTA)

Teresa Meredith (courtesy ISTA)

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said stagnant pay adds to challenges that teachers face from state-mandated evaluation systems, limits on collective bargaining and increased scrutiny for student test scores.

“It kind of feels like we’ve taken huge steps backward in time in a lot of things,” she said. “And compensation is just one of them.”

Meredith traces some of the salary deflation to the property tax caps that Indiana adopted in 2008. Responsibility for school funding shifted from local to state taxes, and state revenues took a big hit with the recession. In 2010 Gov. Mitch Daniels cut K-12 education funding by $300 million.

Continue reading

Conservative journal: Charter schools aren’t fulfilling promise

It really says something when the conservative Indiana Policy Review publishes a lengthy article that essentially declares Indiana’s charter school experiment a failure.

Especially when the article’s author, Timothy P. Ehrgott, is a longtime school choice advocate who helped found one of the state’s first charter schools and was director of the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust, a privately funded voucher program.

But Ehrgott looks at the data and concludes that, after 12 years, Indiana charter schools aren’t doing what their advocates promised: producing better results with greater efficiency than public schools. Judging by the state’s A-F school grading system, he shows that public schools perform better than charter schools, even adjusting for location and for student poverty and race/ethnicity.

The question almost asks itself: Why fund charter schools as alternatives, when the existing schools are doing not only as well, but, as we’ve seen, much better?

Indeed, the results presented here are so lop-sided as to call into question not only any increase in the number or funding of charter schools, but perhaps even the wisdom of continuing to fund the majority of charter schools in our state.

Let’s be honest. If a medical study of a drug produced these kinds of results, with many more adverse outcomes than positive ones, the project would be shut down.

Ehrgott’s analysis is similar to one that I did two months ago, but he goes into considerably more detail; he also adds information on the history and philosophy of charter schools. He hits on the high points of the article in a newspaper column distributed by the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

Despite his disappointment, Ehrgott isn’t actually ready to end the charter school experiment – or maybe he just recognizes that isn’t going to happen.

Instead he says Indiana authorities should get serious about accountability: Shut down charter schools that get Ds and Fs, intervene with those that get Cs and put an end to “authorizer shopping.” He also suggests offering more ways for charter schools to pay for facilities and letting their students ride to and from school on public school buses.