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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Why Title I funds were cut for Indiana charter schools

Indiana charter school operators were alarmed to learn that many of the schools were slated for unexpected cuts in their 2015-16 allocations under the federal Title I program. What happened?

Michelle McKeown of the Indiana Charter School Board says the glitch appears to result from the way the Indiana Department of Education determined school free and reduced-price lunch counts for purposes of allocating the funds. And it is tied to the participation by some high-poverty school districts in the new Community Eligibility program, in which all students get free school lunches.

McKeown makes a persuasive case that the education department calculated Title I funding using Community Eligibility data for school districts but used different data for charter schools.

“This is the only explanation that makes sense to me,” McKeown, the interim executive director of the charter school board, told me. “I think it’s very clear they used different sets of data.”

It’s worth noting that, even with the cuts, some charter schools still get more Title I money per student than the local districts. And some charter schools got increases. But the situation has political resonance because Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who heads the state education department, is lukewarm on charter schools. Some of her critics seemed to suspect treachery.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, declined to comment on McKeown’s conclusions but said the department used the same formula to allocate Title I funding that has been used for over a decade. He said some schools had errors in data they submitted, which can have an effect on the allocations.

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