Future of Schools

Pence's 2015 education plans on funding, flexibility raise questions

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indiana Sen. Minority Leader Tim Lanane, Senate President David Long, House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (left to right, back row) at a special legislative corrections session last year.

Gov. Mike Pence’s plan for an “education session” of the Indiana General Assembly in 2015 won’t just be about his ongoing battle with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Pence’s made waves with his bombshell announcement Thursday that he would dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and ask lawmakers to reconsider Ritz’s leadership post on the Indiana State Board of Education.

But the rest of the education agenda that dominated his speech contained a half-dozen major new proposals to overhaul Indiana’s system of school finance, again expand access to charter schools, provide more money for private school tuition vouchers and add a new program he called “freedom to teach,” giving the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.”

Republican legislative leaders, who announced their own education priorities in October, said Pence’s ideas would be added to their discussions.

“We will review his proposals and many others fully in the legislative process, making sure that they are the right choices for Hoosier children,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “I am especially appreciative of the governor’s executive order to dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and hope that this decision will begin to address the discord we have experienced in education governance at the highest levels.”

Making up almost two-thirds of the state’s budget, education funding will be center stage in 2015, with questions about what constitutes “fairness” for urban, suburban and rural school districts being a focus for the state’s Republican lawmakers.

Speaking on a panel at the annual legislative conference, Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal funding amounts for every student in every school district. If Republicans push for more equal funding between wealthy and poor districts, he said, it will take money away from the schools need it most because poor districts in the state receive extra aid to educate children who come to school with more barriers to learning.

“To them, it’s money following the child,” Porter said of his Republican colleagues. “Well you know, if I’m a millionaire, I have money following me, but I don’t really need it.”

But Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, argued that parents in wealthier and suburban school districts pay taxes, too, and their kids’ schools deserve a more equal cut.

“All students are important,” Brown said. “And we want to raise the support substantially for all students in the state of Indiana to have an education opportunity.”

One change Pence proposed was an increase in “performance funding” — a way to reward schools with extra dollars for successes such as increased test scores, strong graduation rates, high ratings for teachers and A or B accountability grades. Brown said legislators are still discussing how the formula might change to include performance as a bigger factor.

“We had $30 million in the last budget in performance funding,” Brown said. “We’ll have to look at it if we want that amount, another amount or what the parameters will be so that you’ll be able to get performance funding. It’s a potential increase for schools who are doing a great job.”

Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, was skeptical about the need for performance to drive a larger portion of school funding, especially since he said he hears so often from teachers that they feel their hands are tied by so many standardized tests.

“We need to take a time out and just see how valid these measures are,” Lanane said. “At the end of the day, the question is what are the kids learning? Are they learning more than they did before we had all this comprehensive testing? I’m not sure that’s the case.”

Lanane also took issue with Pence’s “freedom to teach” program, saying the state should trust teachers and give them freedom from tests instead. He thinks the real goal might be to allow districts a way around union contract rules.

“I hope this isn’t just another fancy way of saying we want to limit the rights of teachers to collectively bargain,” Lanane said.

House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City said Pence’s proposal has a nice name, but it would have ill effects on teachers.

“‘Freedom to teach’ — those are just words,” Pelath said. “Those are words that were dreamed up in some think tank with pollsters sitting by their sides. That’s not about freedom to teach, it’s about deconstructing and deregulating schools to the point where they don’t matter anymore, and that’s what the goal is.”

A performance-based funding formula could have broad implications for Indianapolis Public Schools, where more of its schools earn F’s rather than A’s from the state.

But Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who has already backed Pence’s plan for “transformation zone” turnaround efforts, complimented Pence’s agenda.

“Gov. Pence is pushing for bold strides in education,” Ferebee said. “We know all students are capable of excellence, and it’s time we all work together to ensure the greatest opportunities for success. As our governor introduces more initiatives to positively impact our public schools, IPS is now better positioned to lead our own transformation.”

Public school activists were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Phyllis Bush, a retired teacher and cofounder of the Northeast Friends of Public Education, said she is skeptical.

“This seems like an outright push to focus on merit pay, voucher expansion and charter school expansion,” she said. “Since Gov. Pence gave no specifics on costs, and since he cited no research on the effectiveness of these plans, this seems like one more blow to public schools in Indiana.”

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”

enrollment

Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.