Future of Schools

Federal complaint filed against vouchers

A state advocacy group for the disabled is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Douglas County’s voucher pilot, alleging it discriminates against children with special needs.

The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People filed the complaint Monday with the department’s Civil Rights Division, citing violations of federal laws governing the treatment of students with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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“Our allegation is that parents of kids with disabilities don’t have an equal opportunity to benefit from the program,” said Randy Chapman, the center’s legal director. “The services offered by the private school partners are limited at best.”

As evidence, the center submitted applications from the 19 private schools approved for participation in the pilot by Douglas County district leaders. They show some school officials readily admitting they do not serve all students.

For example, officials at Woodlands Academy, a small private school in Castle Rock, wrote, “Serious disabilities are not best served at Woodlands, as we do not have the facilities for these students.”

And leaders from Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch stated, “We do not have a special education program or resource program at Valor as our admissions standards preclude having a population with significant need.”

The complaint asks the department to ensure private schools participating in the pilot “give equal access to students with disabilities by enrolling them and providing services for them” or to stop implementation of the voucher plan until they do.

Dougco response: “It’s in the hands of parents”

Randy Barber, spokesman for the Douglas County School District, said 33 of the 500 students slated to participate in the voucher pilot this fall are children with special needs. He did not know the severity of their needs.

“Just like any other families that will be part of this, the family of special needs students have a choice to choose whatever program best fits their child,” he said. “It’s really up to the parent to decide, based on their child’s needs, whether or not those private schools meet those requirements.”

A voucher supporter believes a private school might better help her autistic child.
Dougco mom Diana Oakley, whose son has Asperger's Syndrome, believes a voucher to a private school will improve his education.

He pointed out that families filling out the application for the vouchers, worth $4,575 in public funds, checked a series of statements regarding their understanding of the pilot. One dealt specifically with special needs:

“I understand that participation in the Choice Scholarship Program will be viewed as a voluntary parental placement in the private school partner for the purpose of special education services. District-provided services to parentally placed students with disabilities are limited.”

So, Barber said, “Really, it’s in the hands of parents.”

Diana Oakley of Highlands Ranch, whose son Nathaniel has Aspberger’s Syndrome, is outspoken in her support for the pilot.

The voucher will help send Nathaniel, who has struggled academically and socially at his neighborhood public school, to the private Humanex Academy in Englewood, which specializes in students like him.

“Think of Nathaniel,” Oakley urged district leaders discussing the pilot at a July 12 meeting.

Complaint: Parents asked to trade rights for vouchers

In its complaint, the legal center cites Humanex and one other school as exceptions in an array of private schools ill-suited to serving students with more than mild disabilities.

Chapman argues the district is asking parents of disabled students who want a voucher to give up their rights to the services provided by federal law by entering into voluntary parental placements.

That’s because federal law requires school districts to provide certain services for children with special needs. But when a parent decides to place a disabled child in a private school, the district’s obligation to provide those services declines.

In such cases, “the only thing the district is required to provide them with is a service plan, not individual services or the same appeals processes,” Chapman said.

The legal term, defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is “parentally-placed private school children with disabilities.”

Douglas County “seeks to relieve itself from providing services to children with disabilities based on parental agreement to participate in the Choice Scholarship Program,” reads the legal center’s complaint.

“With this limit, parents of children with disabilities cannot choose to enroll their children in the Choice Scholarship Program unless they agree to give up services. In effect, parents of children with disabilities, who need more than limited services, need not apply.”

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who leads a district that is already in deficit, was optimistic. In a statement, he said, “we’re encouraged by the commitment and urgency demonstrated by our legislative leaders.”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”