Future of Schools

Pence hails charter schools, vouchers at school choice rally

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence speaks to private and charter school students this morning as Herron High School students look on.

Gov. Mike Pence told a gathering of children from charter and private schools today that education can take them where they want to go in life, as it did for his family.

A day at the Statehouse for schools that participate in school choice programs began with a morning rally with Pence as the featured speaker. He told kids seated in chairs and on the floor in front of the podium about his Irish immigrant grandfather who came to the U.S. and worked as a bus driver. Two generations later, his grandson is Indiana’s governor.

Programs that let families choose schools they believe are the best fits for their children can help today’s families achieve all they want in life too, Pence said.

“Whatever that little dream is in your heart — from this small town boy from Southern Indiana whose grandfather immigrated to this country — if you can dream it, you can be it,” he said. “Grab your dreams. Live your dreams. Just live them here in Indiana.”

It was the second Statehouse education rally in a week. Monday’s rally in support of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz had a decidedly different flavor, with sharp criticism of Pence over bills he supports that would effectively remove Ritz as chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education.

Since the start of the legislative session in January, Pence and his lieutenants have battled intensely with Ritz her team at the Indiana Department of Education over the direction of education policy in the state.

But there was no talk of Statehouse political debates this time. The focus was squarely on school choice.

“Children in this state ought to be afforded opportunities for quality education,” Pence said. “Those decisions should be made in the best interests of our kids, and those decisions should be made by parents.”

The rally, sponsored by Hoosiers For Quality Education, evolved from what served in recent years as an annual Statehouse pep rally in support of school choice programs such as charter schools and the state’s private school tuition voucher program. About 300 people attended, including students and teachers from private and charter schools. Kids spent the rest of the day in lessons at the Statehouse designed to connect to Indiana academic standards.

Bills under debate this month in the legislature would provide more funding and flexibility to charter schools.

Erika Haskins, a school leader at one of Goodwill Industries’ Excel Center adult charter high schools, said publicly funded but privately managed charter schools like hers fill gaps for students in need.

Excel Centers primarily try to help students who dropped out of high school complete their educations so they can attend college or get better jobs.

“My students slipped through the cracks at some point in time,” Haskins said. “Now they are fighting twice as hard for social and economic mobility. We need to change the game for all students and parents so attending quality school is feasible for all students.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.