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.
Winning candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools board positions spent over a half million dollars on their 2020 campaigns, with most of the money coming from advocacy groups that back school choice.
At-large candidate Kenneth Allen spent half that total — $255,742 — to be elected to an office that pays about $6,000 a year, including per-diem payments for meetings and events. The winning candidates outspent their opponents by 10-to-1 on the November 2020 election, according to campaign finance reports filed this month with the Marion County clerk’s office.
The four ran as a slate in favor of continuing the district’s policy of promoting “innovation network schools,” which include charter schools and district schools that operate with charter-like autonomy.
The Indianapolis Public Schools board violated the state’s Open Door Law last week when it effectively excluded the public from attending what should have been a public meeting.
The violation may have been “technical,” and it may have been motivated by public health concerns. And yes, there are more serious things to worry about right now, given the COVID-19 pandemic and all its effects. But it’s still worrisome that the state’s most closely watched district could disregard the law that protects our right to have government business conducted in public.
And this wasn’t a no-one-cares school board meeting. The board voted 4-3 to turn two IPS schools over to outside partners, which will operate them as “innovation network” schools. The proposals had been subject to considerable debate at previous meetings, which were open to the public. Those decisions could be overturned if a judge were to rule the meeting was illegal.
It’s been a rough week for the Tony Bennett education reform agenda in Indiana.
Monday, the state House of Representatives voted unanimously to drop a requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores. And Wednesday, the State Board of Education voted to return the operation of four “turnaround academies” to public school districts in Gary and Indianapolis.
Both votes represented reversals of education initiatives that then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett championed in 2011.
It seemed like a victory for Indianapolis Public Schools when the Indiana Charter School Board voted Dec. 13 to reject charter applications for three Indianapolis “turnaround academy” schools.
But it’s not over till it’s over. The fate of the schools – Emmerich Manual High School, T.C. Howe School and Emma Donnan Middle School – is still in the hands of the State Board of Education. And the board has already turned a cold shoulder to the idea of returning the schools to IPS.
The State Board of Education will consider what happens next at its Jan. 15 meeting.
In 2012, the Indiana State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett chose Charter Schools USA to run three Indianapolis schools that the state had taken over after years of low test scores.
Thus began a complex tale replete with politics, money and head-spinning networks of relationships – with the fate of the schools, T.C. Howe Community School, Emmerich Manual High School and Emma Donnan Middle School, still in the balance seven years later.
The saga took another turn last week when the state board rejected an appeal by Indianapolis Public Schools to let the schools return to its fold as “innovation network” schools. Instead, it called for Charter Schools USA, through a nonprofit affiliate, to keep running the schools, now as charter schools.
The Indiana Charter School Board could decide Friday whether to award charters to the CSUSA affiliate, called ReThink Forward Indiana. If it does, ReThink will have yet another CSUSA-connected group, Noble Education Initiative, manage the schools. Continue reading
Last week’s election results were mostly positive for education. Not entirely – there were definitely a few missed opportunities. But the news was more good than bad.
Close to home, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved a referendum to raise property taxes and increase school funding by $272 million over eight years. Most of the money will go to operating expenses, including long-overdue teacher raises; some will fund building improvements.
This is a big deal. IPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment and reduced state funding. Officials were reluctant to try to raise property taxes for fear voters would shoot down the measure. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce first called for a smaller increase, then got on board.
Around the state, eight school funding referendums were approved and four were turned down. That’s a worse success rate than schools have achieved in recent years, as officials have become more cautious and savvy in asking for tax increases. In May, voters approved 12 of 12 referendums.
The Indianapolis Public Schools board decided this week to ask voters to approve $315 million in increased property taxes to help fund school operations. That may sound like a lot, but spread over eight years and for a district of IPS’ size, it’s a reasonable request.
It’s right in line with what school boards have been asking for in other districts around the state. And voters have increasingly approved those school-funding referendums.
The IPS operating referendum boils down to $39.4 million per year — about $1,300 per IPS student. Some districts, including West Lafayette, Tri-County and Munster, have won approval for more than that, per pupil. Other districts, including MSD Warren Township and Crown Point, have settled for less.
The IPS referendum would increase local property taxes by up to 28 cents per $100 assessed property value. That’s right in the middle of the 16 school operating referendums approved in the past year.
Indianapolis Public Schools just went through the difficult and excruciatingly painful process of closing three of the district’s seven high schools. Now the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce wants it to close more schools as a condition for getting business support for an upcoming school-funding referendum.
The chamber made the demand in an analysis of IPS finances that it released last week. The group said it is willing to support a modest tax increase to help fix aging buildings and give teachers and principals a raise, but only if the district agrees to cut nearly $500 million in spending over the next eight years.
That’s a huge amount — it’s more than a 15-percent reduction in spending, by my calculation. The chamber report never actually refers to closing schools (except in a footnote); it calls for reducing “excess seats.” But it’s clear that closing schools would produce the bulk of the savings. IPS officials say they would have to close at least 10 elementary or middle schools to make the cuts.
“At the end of the day, there are only a few ways to save money,” IPS school board member Kelly Bentley told me. “That’s closing schools and letting go of teachers.”
The Hechinger Report and NBC News collaborated over the weekend for some solid reporting on racial segregation in charter schools. They focused on Lake Oconee Academy, a Georgia charter school where 73 percent of students are white while 68 percent of students in surrounding public schools are black.
Their stories identified 115 charter schools that they deemed racially segregated – much more heavily white than surrounding public schools. Texas and Michigan were home to the most charter schools where African-American and Hispanic students were dramatically underrepresented.
Hechinger and NBC defined a charter school as “segregated” if its share of white students was 20 percentage points higher than the whitest nearby public school. They also found at least 747 charter schools that enrolled a higher percentage of white students than any public school in the same district.
I wondered if Indianapolis would have charter schools on the list. It didn’t, but it might have if reporters had set their criteria a bit differently.