School Finance

Schools try to understand why the wealthiest Marion County district got the most new poverty aid

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Warren Township schools had to make cuts this year after a drop in federal poverty aid.

All but two Marion County districts, excluding Indianapolis Public Schools, saw a cut in federal poverty aid this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer Indianapolis kids are living in poverty.

Rather, for some districts it might simply reflect a bit of a paperwork problem: If fewer Indianapolis adults completed annual Census surveys used to determine how many families qualify for aid and other services, it might explain why some schools got less money.

Federal poverty aid to schools, often referred to by the section of the Congressional act that created it, Title I, flows to school districts every year through a decades-old federal law now called No Child Left Behind. That money is supposed to help poor families, so it would stand to reason that the school districts with the lowest median family income would qualify for the most federal aid.

But that’s not what happened this year.

Instead, federal poverty aid went up for schools in Franklin Township, the wealthiest school district in Marion County with a median family income above $40,000, but went down in nearly every other school district, including Warren Township, which borders Franklin but has a median family income roughly $10,000 less.

When school districts talk about poverty, they often use the percent of students who come from families that qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch programs as a way of comparing one district to another. To qualify, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually.

But federal poverty aid is actually not based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, said Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, an assistant superintendent in Warren Township who also sits on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Federal poverty aid actually depends on many factors, but the biggest is the number of households within a district that are counted by the U.S. Census as below the federal poverty level. That number is based on surveys sent to homes.

The problem is not all families return the surveys. That can skew the district’s poverty percentage if not enough poor families report their income, and there is not much the school district can do about it. Census updates are done every year in between the big census counts each decade.

It’s critical for school districts that families fill out Census surveys, Kwiatkowski said.

“In Warren, something we have to battle is making people understand the importance of them filling out all of that information,” she said.

Less aid means tough cuts

The U.S. Department of Education uses a combination of the American Community Survey, federal income tax returns, food stamp data, social security information, Bureau of Economic analysis surveys and the most recent population estimates to determine how much aid each district should receive.

The department also tried to count the number of neglected children, children in foster homes and those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal aid (food stamps), but those kids only account for about four percent of the total count of formula children.

In most states, including Indiana, a single person is considered to be below the poverty level if they make less than $11,770 a year. For each additional household member, that number goes up by $4,160. So a family of four, for example, must report that they make less than $24,250 a year to be considered a poverty-level household. That is a much lower threshold than what counts as “poor” under the free and reduced-price lunch program.

Although it’s common for the amount of poverty aid given to school districts to fluctuate, that inconsistency can be a problem when districts are surprised by big swings.

Warren Township, for example, received $3.4 million this year, which is about $362,000 less than the district received last year, or about a 9.5 percent decrease. The big drop has forced tough choices.

For example, the district announced this summer a cut in the number of teaching assistant jobs. Those salaries had been paid using federal aid. Those assistants are especially important in the lowest-performing schools, where they work one-on-one with struggling students to help them keep up, or catch up, to their peers.

The district also reduced the amount of after-school tutoring it offers at every school, Kwiatkowski said. Those programs are costly in part because of late busing to take kids home. In another example, a new literacy program designed to help 5th and 6th grade students who struggle in reading and writing wasn’t purchased because the district couldn’t afford it for those grade levels.

Warren is lucky, however, to have a federal Race to the Top grant to help fill in some of the holes, especially when it comes to personalized learning and technology.

Making more money count

Beech Grove City Schools is the other Marion County district besides Franklin Township that is getting an increase in poverty aid this year

Superintendent Paul Kaiser said it is not surprising. Poverty is on the rise in Beech Grove.

“We did not do anything out of the ordinary,” Kaiser said. “Over half of the homes in Beech Grove are rental properties now. We don’t have that stability we used to have of people growing up in Beech Grove and passing on their houses to relatives.”

But even though Beech Grove’s funding increased, the district still received much less than most Marion County districts at a little more than $714,000, up from last year’s $678,000. By comparison, much larger and poorer Indianapolis Public Schools received nearly $29 million.

Kaiser said the district does its best to alert families about completing Census surveys so that Beech Grove is accurately represented year to year.

“It’s important that we get that information out to our parents and alert them that it will not only help them in their personal lives from a financial standpoint, it helps the schools as well,” he said.

Beech Grove used the extra funding this year to hire two new teaching assistants.

“We obviously can’t hire another teacher for $36,000,” Kaiser said. “But we appreciate the funding. I believe it’s one of the reasons our test scores have been rock solid and part of the reason we’re an A school district.”

He was surprised, however, that Franklin Township received the biggest increase in poverty aid this year. Only 38 percent of students in Franklin Township receive free or reduced-price meals. But the district received a more than $100,000 increase in aid this year.

“There’s a huge difference in demographics,” Kaiser said. “I don’t know what happened there.”

Kwiatkowski is certain it comes back to Census surveys.

“In Franklin, they must have had a lot more people fill it out,” she said.

funding dance

Indiana to tap reserves to free up $140M for teacher pay, Holcomb promises

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Governor-Elect Eric Holcomb speaks to Republican supporters at an Election night event.

Indiana plans to free up $140 million over two years for schools with the goal of increasing teacher pay, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

The state will tap into its $2 billion in reserves to pay down a pension liability for schools, Holcomb said, reducing schools’ expenses so more money could go to educators.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” Holcomb said.

He said he hoped schools would use the savings to increase teacher salaries. Lawmakers said after the speech that they would look for ways to make sure local districts direct more dollars to teachers.

The freed-up funding would equate to relatively small raises for Indiana’s roughly 70,000 public school teachers. In a bill seeking designated funds for teacher pay, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, estimated it would cost $315 million to raise educators’ salaries by 5 percent over two years.

The move to find the money to increase teacher pay comes after education leaders raised concerns over not having earmarked dollars. Holcomb previously suggested that schools use their overall funding, proposed to increase by 2 percent each year, for teachers’ salaries. Other Republican lawmakers have also proposed increasing teacher pay by reducing school budgets in other areas.

Still, the $140 million would come from reduced expenses, not a new influx of state dollars. Lawmakers would still have to approve the move.

“Personally, I think it’s a wise use of surplus,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles and large-scale teacher demonstrations in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Indiana has made addressing teacher pay a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Indiana ranks 18th highest in the nation for teachers salaries adjusted for cost of living, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research — leading some to fear teachers will flee to higher-paying states.

But while the issue has easily won bipartisan support and united unlikely allies, it has proved more difficult to find a solution — namely, the money — that satisfies educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s too early to pick a number,” Bosma said, though both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed after the speech that the $140 million — while a “creative” approach — wasn’t enough.

“We can do that this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We can find a way to give an increase in teacher pay this year. We don’t have to kick the can down the road. We don’t have to say, oh, let’s turn it back over to the local school districts and let them find the money.”

But a meaningful solution could take time: Holcomb also announced Tuesday night the formation of a commission to study teacher compensation and search for ways to improve salaries, with the goal of proposing action in 2021. Business leader Michael L. Smith, an investment fund co-founder and retired Anthem executive, will lead the commission.

“Teachers deserve compensation that reflects one of the most honorable, critical and challenging occupations in the state,” tweeted Lawrence Township teacher Tamara Markey, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, who was among community leaders invited by House Republicans to provide social media commentary on the speech.

Holcomb’s State of the State speech also emphasized workforce development, including preparing high school students for careers. He introduced Mary Roberson, superintendent of Perry Central Community Schools, to tout the district’s partnerships with local manufacturers to give students hands-on training.

“A strong economy depends on a world-class workforce,” Holcomb said. “That workforce depends on a great education. A great education depends on great teachers.”

protest prep

Los Angeles teachers went on strike Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

Teachers, retired teachers and parents show their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.

Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.

What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?

Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”

Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?

Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

What are the union and the district really fighting about?

The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:

Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. …

Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.

What about charter schools?

Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.

The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.

The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)

These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.

But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.

Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.

The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)

As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.

What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?

As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:

Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

What will the political ramifications of the strike be?

That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.

A few prominent elected officials have also weighed in supporting teachers, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna — though most national Democrats have been silent.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.

“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”