prek debate

Two preschool proposals are on the table, and one has already faced criticism for adding a pathway to vouchers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at IPS School 55.

With Indiana’s preschool pilot program about to expire, there’s plenty of public support for a plan that ensures it continues. But there’s little consensus about how much to expand it — and how to fund it.

But after today, there are two main proposals on the table — one simple bill from senators that would double the current program and another more complicated plan from House lawmakers that also adds another pathway through which families can access taxpayer funded vouchers for private school tuition.

That aspect of the House bill was opposed by some lawmakers and community members today, who want to support preschool but worry about increasing access to vouchers. Critics say vouchers divert money from public schools, while supporters argue they give families more educational choices.

Generally, Indiana Democrats widely support scaling the program up to more counties. And some Republican lawmakers, like House Speaker Brian Bosma, want to see the program double or even triple in size. But others want it to grow more conservatively or not at all.

Indiana began its statewide preschool program in 2014, setting aside $10 million per year for low-income families to spend at preschool providers that met safety standards and offered programs that combined academics and child care.

Two years later, lawmakers and community advocates have signaled they want to keep the program moving forward, citing research that shows preschool gives students a jump start before elementary school and offers longer-term benefits, too.

Here’s a guide to the two proposals discussed in the Senate and House education committee meetings. Only one bill is likely to continue toward becoming law, although both plans could change over the next few months. It’s also possible both plans will stall.

For more education bills we’re watching in the General Assembly this year, check out our full list.

SENATE PLAN

Bill: Senate Bill 276, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. The bill will likely see a vote in a committee meeting in the next few weeks.

Summary: The bill proposes expanding the state’s preschool program from five to 10 counties, at a cost of $20 million per year for next two years.

Comments: Holdman appealed to lawmakers who might not want to make a large financial investment in preschool by noting that this plan doesn’t go as far as a “universal” plan would because it would continue to restrict which families are eligible to use the preschool scholarships and which providers are allowed to accept them.

“Our program is very unique in that we are targeting disadvantaged kids,” Holdman said during a Senate Education Committee hearing on Jan. 25. “We are requiring an academic component to be part of the qualification to participate,” he said, something that “has given us some positive results.”

But other senators weren’t convinced that expansion is the right move, especially given the potential price tag. Advocates from the United Way of Central Indiana have suggested $50 million per year would be a more appropriate figure to satisfy demand for preschool, rather than the $20 million proposed.

“We don’t have anywhere near $50 million to do this,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, a Senate Education Committee member and a key player in drafting the state’s budget.

HOUSE PLAN

Bill: House Bill 1004, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. The bill passed out of the House Education Committee Tuesday and next heads to the full House.

Summary: The bill proposes expanding the state’s preschool program from five to 10 counties and loosening income requirements to allow more families to participate. Preschool providers could also apply for grants — which would be matched by local philanthropies — to establish programs or expand existing ones. Perhaps most controversially, the bill would let families who get a state preschool scholarship also receive for a voucher for kindergarten, meaning they could access the state’s voucher program sooner than rules currently allow.

Comments: Behning said it’s important to both expand the number of families who qualify for the state’s program and to give providers an opportunity to create more “high-quality” programs that meet Indiana’s criteria.

While most testimony on the bill was supportive, the part of the bill dealing with K-12 vouchers came in for criticism. Behning said the provision was meant to smooth out the process for families, and he doesn’t see it as a voucher expansion.

“It is really focused on making sure parents have a seamless opportunity to put their students in a school that they think best meets the needs of their students,” Behning said. “It’s an opportunity to keep that without having to disrupt the child’s education plan.”

But Scott Russell, with the Washington Township parent council, saw it as interfering with the main point of the bill — to expand preschool. Russell pointed out that the potential added cost of the voucher provision was much greater than the cost of the parts of the bill that deal with preschool, according to the fiscal note attached to the bill.

“The bill in its current form ties together the widely popular idea of expanding our preschool pilot program with a controversial (voucher proposal),” Russell said. “A preschool funding bill is not the place for the expansion of vouchers.”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.