Enrollment up, but only a little

Enrollment in Indiana public and charter schools bounced back last fall as most districts returned to full-time, in-person learning. But not all the way back.

According to data released this week by the Indiana Department of Education, 1.03 million students were enrolled in public and charter schools at the start of the current school year. That’s up slightly from the previous year but about 14,000 short of number in fall 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enrollment had declined in the fall of 2020 as the pandemic took hold and many schools switched partly or fully to online or hybrid instruction. Much of the decrease was in the early grades, especially kindergarten, where enrollment shrank by over 7%.

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Bill would share referendum funds with charter schools

Legislation to force school districts to share money from property-tax referendums with charter schools is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The measure, House Bill 1072, says funding from future operating and school-safety referendums must be shared with charter schools attended by students who live in the school district. Its author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the influential chair of the House Education Committee.

An analysis by the state’s Legislative Services Agency suggests the bill could shift about $25 million a year from school districts to charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. The impact would be most pronounced in cities with many charter schools, like Indianapolis and Gary. It would not apply to online charter schools or “adult high schools” like Goodwill Industries’ Excel Centers.

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IPS, Gary dominate charter school demographics

Two themes jump out from Indiana Department of Education demographic data on charter school students in Indiana. First, it’s a tale of two cities – or, more accurately, a tale of two districts.

Over half of Indiana’s nearly 45,000 charter school students live in the Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Community Schools districts, even though those districts account for fewer than 5% of the state’s students. State charter school data are overwhelmingly skewed by what happens in those two districts.

Second, Indianapolis’ approximately 50 charter schools enroll higher percentages of Black and economically disadvantaged students than IPS schools – even though IPS has significantly more Black students and students from low-income families than most districts in the state.

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Budget would increase charter school funding

Charter schools would get a boost in funding under a budget bill that’s headed for approval by the Indiana House. There may be an argument for that, but don’t expect the legislature to debate it.

Under a budget amendment adopted Thursday by the House Ways and Means Committee, the state’s “charter and innovation network school grant” would increase from $750 per pupil to $1,000 in 2021-22 and $1,250 in 2022-23. The increase would cost the state nearly $40 million over two years.

The grant program is intended to compensate for the fact that charter schools can’t levy local property taxes, while public school districts use property taxes to pay for student transportation and facilities expenses. The result is that districts spend about $3,300 more, per pupil, than charter schools, according to a report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Charter schools aren’t required to provide student transportation; reportedly some do, and some don’t. They do have costs for facilities and may have to pay most of those from their state operating funds. According to the CRPE report, charter schools spend $1,285 per pupil on facilities.

Charter school advocates have long objected to the unequal funding and have lobbied to change it. In the 2020 elections, one of the biggest contributors to the House Republican Campaign Committee was a new political action committee called Hoosiers for Great Public Schools. Chaired by former Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, the group gave $150,000 to the House GOP committee and another $50,000 to the campaign of Republican House Speaker Todd Huston.

The PAC raised $900,000 in 2020, none of it from Hoosiers: it all came from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and former energy trader and hedge-fund manager John Arnold. (It also spent heavily on Indianapolis Public Schools board elections).

Peterson told me last fall that his primary concern was the “funding gap” between charter schools and traditional public schools. Just what constitutes fair funding for charter schools is a debate worth having, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, House leaders have dealt with the issue in the budget, effectively bypassing any discussion of charter-school funding policy.

When it comes to advocacy, money talks; and those with the most money get heard.

‘School choice’ and public schools

Here’s a little secret about school choice in Indiana: Public schools lose more students to other public school districts than to charter schools or private school vouchers.

According to the Indiana Department of Education’s fall 2020 Public School Corporation Transfer Report, 70,394 Hoosier students transferred from one public school district to another this year. That compares with 44,569 who attend charter schools and 35,150 who attend private schools using state-funded tuition vouchers, the options we think of as “school choice.”

Until a few years ago, Indiana didn’t see so many public-school transfers. School district operations were partially funded by local property taxes. Students could transfer from one district to another, but they were expected to pay “transfer tuition” to cover the costs.

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Former Democratic mayor raises big money for GOP

A political action committee chaired by a former Democratic mayor of Indianapolis is one of the top contributors to the Indiana House Republican Campaign Committee.

The PAC, Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, was created in April and is chaired by Bart Peterson. He was mayor of Indianapolis from 1999 to 2007 and is now president and CEO of Christel House International, a nonprofit that operates three charter schools in Indianapolis. The PAC’s treasurer is Caryl Auslander, former vice president of education for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

The PAC has contributed $150,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee and another $50,000 to the campaign of Republican House Speaker Todd Huston, according to campaign finance reports. That’s more than almost any other donor with a couple of exceptions.

It has also given $20,000 to the Indiana Senate Republican campaign committee and $17,000 to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s political action committee. It gave $200,000 to RISE Indy, a PAC that supports Indianapolis school board candidates who favor charter-like “innovation” schools.

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Indiana charter, private schools get Paycheck Protection funds

Indiana charter schools were awarded between $15 million and $38 million in Paycheck Protection Program funding intended to help small businesses and nonprofits during the economic downturn, according to  Small Business Administration data.

That is in addition to funding under a section of the CARES Act intended to help public schools; Indiana charter schools got $20.5 million in that funding.

The PPP figure is a conservative estimate. It doesn’t include schools that may have received less than $150,000, which were not identified by the SBA.

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Deadline nears on charter schools bill

Indiana advocates for traditional public schools are doing what they can in the little time that’s left to block legislation that would let charter schools share in the revenue produced by local property-tax referendums.

They had no chance to weigh in on the measure before Monday, when it was approved by the Senate as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with various tax matters. That’s because it didn’t appear until Monday morning. Its author bypassed the normal legislative process, which includes committee hearings in both the House and Senate and a chance for the public to speak.

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Charter school legislation bypasses democratic process

Legislation to let school districts share the proceeds of property-tax referendums with charter schools is a short step from becoming law. Maybe that’s a reasonable idea and maybe it isn’t. But the way it arrived – slipped into a catch-all bill with no chance for scrutiny – should upset everyone.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

There were apparently rumors around the Statehouse that charter school advocates might want a share of school referendum dollars. But no legislation to that effect was introduced, and no lawmakers suggested the idea during meetings of the House and Senate education committees.

On Monday, though, the referendum-charter measure was filed as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with “various tax matters.” This was well after the bill had been approved by the House and by a Senate committee, when advocates for and against could review the language and have their say.

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Systemwide failure on virtual charter schools

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” — Upton Sinclair

We’ve known something fishy was going on with virtual charter schools since 2017, when a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation exposed shady business practices and lousy test scores and graduation rates at Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

A blockbuster report this week from the State Board of Accounts shows just how bad it was – and it was worse than we’d imagined. The report charged that the schools overbilled the state by $68 million by vastly inflating the number of students who were enrolled in and attending classes online.

It also found schools made $85.7 million in questionable payments to vendors in which school officials or family members had an interest. Much of the taxpayer money that the schools received, the report shows, went to a network of for-profit businesses tied to school founder Thomas Stoughton and his associates.

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