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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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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Study finds Indy charter schools increased segregation

Critics of charter schools have long worried that they engage in “creaming,” attracting the best students and most engaged parents and leaving neighborhood public schools the rest. But a more serious question is whether charter schools have contributed to the re-segregation of schools by race.

A study of Indianapolis charter schools suggests that, in some cases, they have.

The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University education professor Marc Stein and published last summer in the American Journal of Education, found that charter-school choice in Indy led to “higher degrees of racial isolation and less diversity” than in the public schools the students were leaving.

African-American students were more likely to enroll in charter schools with a higher concentration of black students than the neighborhood schools they left; and white students more likely to enroll in schools with a higher percentage of white enrollment.

The average white student in the analytic sample chose a charter school that enrolled 13.9 percentage points more white students and 13.1 percentage points fewer black students than their previously enrolled school. Concomitantly, black students chose to enroll in charters with enrollments that were 9.2 percent more black and 5.6 percent less white than their former schools.

As a result, charter schools were becoming more racially isolated. In 2008-09, only one charter school in the study met the city desegregation target of having its enrollment of black students within 15 percentage points of Indianapolis Public Schools. When the charter schools opened, five met the target.

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Authorizer shopping pays off for charter school

Organizers of the Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County went shopping for a friendly authorizer and found one. Grace College and Theological Seminary, a small Christian school in northern Indiana, agreed this month to approve the charter school.

But Seven Oaks has work to do before it can open. For one thing, it needs a suitable facility. It’s looking to buy or lease and renovate a building in Bloomington, according to a news release.

The board also has to work through a 10-page checklist of items to the satisfaction of Grace College, including details about school governance, financial management, curriculum and other matters. And it needs to hire staff, including a head of school, and recruit and enroll students.

So the school may open this August, as organizers hope, but it will be a scramble. It will probably require leaning heavily on Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative and/or the school management firm Indiana Charters, both identified as partners in the Seven Oaks application.

In fact, the charter – the written contract that spells out the duties of Seven Oaks and the authorizer – hasn’t yet been completed, Grace College public relations director Amanda Banks said. No decision has yet been made on whether Grace will collect the 3-percent administrative fee that state law allows charter authorizers, she said; that provision will be part of the charter, when it’s completed.

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Grace College should say no to Seven Oaks charter school

It took a few years, but charter school organizers have finally figured out that the easiest way to open their school may be to ask one of the state’s private colleges to act as authorizer. That’s the case in Monroe County, where the folks behind the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School – rejected twice by the Indiana Charter School Board – have turned to Grace College & Seminary, a small Christian college 180 miles to the north.

The state legislature, seeking to induce more charter schools to open, amended the law in 2011 to allow 30 private colleges and universities to authorize charter schools and to create the state charter school board. So far, only three private colleges, Grace, Trine University and Calumet College, have joined the game.

This creates significant issues of accountability and transparency that the legislature should consider. Other Indiana charter school authorizers – local school boards, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, Ball State University and the state charter school board – are at least indirectly accountable to elected public officials. And under the state public meetings law, they make their decisions about authorizing schools in public.

That’s not the case with private colleges. In the case of Seven Oaks, the Grace College board of directors will decide whether to approve a charter. Good luck finding out even who the board members are, let alone why they should be trusted to make a decision about spending public dollars to provide an effective education for the children of Monroe County.

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New authorizer, same concerns about charter school plan

Rejected twice, organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville are back again with their application to open an Indiana charter school. This proposal doesn’t look much different. What’s new is the authorizer: Seven Oaks is asking for a charter from Grace College & Theological Seminary, a small Christian college in Winona Lake, Ind.

A state-mandated public hearing on the proposal will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Holiday Inn Express on the west side of Bloomington.

Seven Oaks applied twice previously to the Indiana Charter School Board. The board voted unanimously in the fall of 2014 to reject its request. This spring, the school pulled its application after the charter school board staff again recommended denial.

The school’s organizers then went authorizer-shopping, thanks to a 2011 state law that expanded the ability to sponsor charter schools to 30 Indiana private colleges and universities. Grace College authorizes two charter schools: Smith Academy for Excellence in Fort Wayne School, which earned Fs from the state in 2013 and 2014; and Dugger Union Community School, which opened this fall.

There’s no real oversight of private colleges that authorize charter schools. And the law provides an incentive for colleges to say yes – they get to keep 3 percent of the schools’ state funding.

But Grace College says it’s committed to authorizing high-quality charter schools. So given that the new application appears similar to the previous ones, it will want to consider concerns raised by the charter school board’s spring 2015 Seven Oaks staff recommendation. Continue reading