IPS tax request in line with what other districts have approved

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.

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Closing schools could lead to ‘death spiral’ for IPS

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.”

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Little diversity in Indy charter schools

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.

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IPS shows way on immigrant students

Between Betsy DeVos in Washington and tight-fisted legislators in Indianapolis, you’d think the education news is all bad. It’s not. And we can thank the Indianapolis Public Schools board for that.

The IPS Board of School Commissioners voted unanimously last week for a resolution expressing support for immigrant students, regardless of whether they and their parents are in the country with proper documents. It’s not just a feel-good statement. The resolution commits IPS to a policy of not asking about students’ immigration status. And it reminds IPS staff that they should not help with immigration enforcement “unless legally required and authorized to do so by the superintendent.”

This is an example that every school board in Indiana should follow. And boards in other states too.

It doesn’t matter whom you voted for in last year’s elections or what you think of immigration as a policy issue. Most children of immigrants are here through no choice of their own. A 1982 Supreme Court decision guarantees them a right to education. Schools have a moral obligation to welcome them. Continue reading

Dark money clouds IPS election

Stand for Children is at it again. The Oregon-based education advocacy group is spending big money to determine who gets elected to the Indianapolis Public Schools board.

That in itself could be cause for concern. But what’s really troubling is that the amount Stand for Children is spending and the source of its money are being kept secret.

If you or I give more than $100 to a candidate for school board or any other public office, the contribution is made public. And candidates have to report how they spend campaign money. But Stand for Children is carrying out a so-called independent campaign in support of the slate of IPS candidates endorsed by its Indianapolis branch. So under the law, it doesn’t have to tell us anything.

It is sending glossy mailers to residences in the IPS district, an expensive undertaking that you might expect in a race for mayor but not in a school board election. It did the same thing in the 2014 IPS election, and its favored candidates won by overwhelming margins.

Judging by the limited and vague information Stand for Children reports to the Internal Revenue Service on its Form 990, it’s a safe bet the organization spent $200,000 or more in Indy in 2014. The report says it paid an Indianapolis firm over $140,000 for printing and mailing services. It also reportedly paid individuals to stand at the polls and hand out fliers on Election Day.

That would be in line with what the group reported spending this year on school board elections in Nashville, Tenn., where it is now facing complaints that it violated campaign finance laws.

But Jim Scheurich, part of the local Our IPS group that is pushing back against Stand and endorsing a different slate, estimates the group is spending considerably more than that this year in Indianapolis. Continue reading

Why Indiana has charter schools and Kentucky doesn’t

Indiana has one of the most active charter school programs in the nation while Kentucky has no charter schools, not even a law that allows them. How did that come about?

Sociologist Joe Johnston attributes the divergence to perceptions of public schools in the state’s biggest cities: negative for Indianapolis and generally positive for Louisville. And he traces those perceptions back to district boundary decisions made 40 years ago.

“It’s become so common to think of urban schools as failing, as these places that can’t possibly succeed,” he told me. “It’s interesting that, when you change the boundaries and have a different sort of school district, people can rally around that.”

Johnston, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, conducted research on the history of charter school debates in Indiana and Kentucky as a graduate student at Indiana University, where he received a doctorate in May. He presented his study Saturday in Chicago at the 110th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Indiana adopted a charter school law in 2001 and has seen a rapid spread of charter schools. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranks it as one of the most charter-friendly states in the country. But Kentucky, which is contiguous with and politically and demographically similar to Indiana, is one of a handful of states without charter schools.

To understand how that came about, Johnston conducted a detailed comparison of education policy development in the two states from 2002-12. He analyzed 2,200 newspaper articles, gubernatorial and mayoral speeches and school reform group documents.

In Indiana, he shows, the push for charter schools was intimately tied to the argument that Indianapolis Public Schools were failing. This squares with what I saw as a reporter covering the Statehouse during the charter debates. Just like elsewhere across the country, charter schools were sold as an alternative to failing urban schools – specifically IPS.

But in Kentucky, there wasn’t the same sentiment that public schools in Louisville were under-performing; there was nothing like the hand-wringing and finger-pointing directed at IPS. While Indiana and other states rushed to create charter school programs, Kentucky held out.

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New ideas at Indianapolis Public Schools

Lewis Ferebee is doing so many things right in his new gig as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools. Let’s hope his support for legislation to let IPS partner with charter schools and try new methods to improve district schools is one of them.

He is making a persuasive case for the measure, House Bill 1321, by arguing that IPS needs every tool it can find to meet the needs of its mostly low-income clientele and to compete for students with charter schools and voucher-eligible private schools.

But he is walking a fine line in his efforts to promote the legislation without alienating supporters of public schools, especially teachers – a sign of how polarized Indiana’s education politics have become after years of union-bashing and IPS-bashing.

HB 1321 would give IPS authority to do two things:

  • Convert low-performing schools to “innovation network” schools, which would continue to serve IPS neighborhoods but would have charter school-like autonomy to hire staff, lengthen the school day or year, and change curriculum and instruction.
  • Lease empty or underutilized buildings to charter schools, whose students would count as part of IPS for purposes of funding and state accountability.

“IPS supports HB 1321 because it will provide the district with innovative tools to improve academic achievement, increase student enrollment and provide families with a greater range of choices to meet their child’s educational needs,” says an IPS flier.

Everyone knows IPS has been a school district under siege. Continue reading