Two years ago, Indiana boldly decided it would turn around five chronically failing schools by turning them over to reform-minded operators.
Today, serious questions have arisen about whether that approach is working.
The company operating Arlington Community High School on the Northeast Side says an exodus of students and cuts in funding have created a budget shortfall that can’t be closed. At Roosevelt High School in Gary, the management company and the school district are in a dispute over vital building repairs and utility bills.
The troubles are emerging just two years after the Indiana State Board of Education — spurred on by then-Superintendent Tony Bennett — turned four persistently low-achieving Indianapolis Public Schools and one in Gary over to independent operators.
The state, the school districts, the school operators and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office all have some degree of oversight of the IPS takeover. But there is ongoing confusion about who has the authority to make decisions at the schools — even on such simple issues as whether they return to their former districts at the end of the takeover contracts.
Money is another problem: Some takeover operators say they can’t keep running their schools without additional state funds, especially after plummeting enrollment gutted the schools’ budgets. Tindley Accelerated Schools, the nonprofit that the state pays to run Arlington, wants out.
And despite all the improvement efforts, all five schools are still rated F academically.
“Our sense is this is going to take five years before you see a full scale shift to what it needs to be,” said Indianapolis deputy mayor Jason Kloth.
And on top of all that, the takeover program has lost crucial political support in the state superintendent’s office.
Democrat Glenda Ritz, who succeeded the GOP’s Bennett last year as superintendent, doesn’t believe schools should be taken over. She said it would make more sense to give struggling schools more help than sever them from their districts.
Ritz doesn’t have the power to dump state takeover on her own. But together, the pressing challenges of money, power, and politics leave Indiana’s school takeover program with an uncertain future.
Struggle for control
The law requires the state to intervene when a school reaches six consecutive years of F grades under Indiana’s A to F grading system. The option for the state to remove a school from district control was added to state law in 1999 but not used until 2012.
That same year, a new player entered the takeover arena: Indianapolis Mayor Ballard.
At his request, the state board gave Ballard day-to-day oversight of the Indianapolis takeover schools. Ballard’s charter school office tracks school academic and financial performance but, unlike with charter schools, Ballard does not have final say over whether the schools are allowed to keep operating.
But the real turf war was between the new operators and the school districts that formerly ran the takeover schools.
From the start, Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Community Schools were livid about the process that severed Arlington and Roosevelt high schools after decades in their districts. Three others — IPS’s Emma Donnan Middle School and Manual and Howe high schools — also entered state takeover.
For-profit companies took over at four schools: Tennessee-based EdisonLearning at Roosevelt and Florida-based Charter Schools USA at Donnan, Manual and Howe.
Tindley, a non-profit charter school operator based in Indianapolis then known as EdPower, took over Arlington. Each group signed a five-year contract with the state board.
Both Gary and IPS launched aggressive campaigns to recruit students at the takeover schools to other district schools — a move that would let the districts keep the associated state per-pupil dollars.
Takeover operators complained that the districts were not forthcoming when it came to sharing student information and leaving the schools well equipped and well kept.
In Gary, the acrimony was especially great. Before the start of school in 2012 EdisonLearning sued the school district, charging that it was obstructing its takeover of Roosevelt.
The suit was ultimately settled, but sharp tensions remained. They reached a peak in January, when burst pipes caused several days of school to be canceled and delivered a repair bill that totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Edison said Gary had not followed takeover rules that require districts to maintain the school buildings. But the district said it didn’t have the money and shouldn’t have to invest large sums in a school it no longer was responsible for.
Last month, the ongoing dispute resulted in the water being shut off at Roosevelt for unpaid bills as Edison and the district continued to disagree over who is responsible for $1 million in unpaid utility costs. The two sides are now working to reach an agreement on the issue.
The dust-up was only one example of how shared management has proven challenging. Kenneth Wong, an education policy professor at Brown University, said the experience has been similar in Michigan and Louisiana, where the state has sought to play a primary role in improving low-scoring schools.
“You have multiple players given some responsibility over the takeover,” Wong said. “That’s going to create uncertainty for the rules and the commitment to making this initiative work.”
Students leave, money follows
The four takeover schools in Indianapolis lost huge numbers of students — between 35 and 60 percent at each school — between the start of classes in 2011 and when the takeover operators took over in 2012. Schools are mostly funded on the basis of their enrollment, so the departures came at a steep cost for the private operators.
On top of that, the takeover schools saw their share of a pot of federal funds for low-performing schools that is controlled by the state shrink as more schools across Indiana became eligible to claim that money. Tindley lost $212,000 and Charter Schools USA’s three schools lost more than $601,110 because of the across-the-board reductions.
Together, the cuts have left takeover operators with much higher costs than they anticipated.
Sherry Hage, CSUSA’s chief academic officer, says the operator is planning to stick with its schools despite the costs. But for some, the price tag is proving too high. Earlier this month, Tindley shocked state education officials by threatening to pull out of Arlington shortly after the start of the school year unless the nonprofit could get $2.4 million in additional aid.
The company has struggled to pay utilities and other costs associated with Arlington, a 380,000-square foot school with an expected enrollment of around 400 students. Tindley is projecting a $1 million budget shortfall at Arlington for the 2014-15 school year.
A task force created by the state board helped broker a deal announced Friday under which IPS is expected to offer Arlington the same amount the district would spend on the school building if it were empty — as much as $250,000.
“A short-term negative situation has been averted. The long-term question is what is the path forward,” said Ballard’s deputy mayor Kloth.
Marcus Robinson, Tindley‘s CEO and chancellor, said Arlington’s future would likely not include his nonprofit after this school year.
“If the business model can’t be fixed, it is a good time to talk about who to pass the baton to,” he said.
Robinson said Tindley could have executed its takeover vision at Arlington if students had been required to stay. (About 63 percent of Arlington’s students transferred, were expelled, or otherwise left since the takeover since the year before the takeover.)
Holding on to the students would have stabilized the school’s funding, and Robinson believes the they would have been better off under Tindley anyway. Arlington’s seven-point test score gain was the largest of takeover schools after one year — even though the school still had fewer than a quarter of its middle-grades students pass state tests.
“Building-level takeover can work, if you take over student population and not just bricks and mortar,” he said. “And that is where the law falls short.”
Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said it’s ironic that charter school operators now have the same complaints that traditional public schools usually have about school choice and other education changes in the state: They are losing students to competition and no longer have enough money.
“Be careful what you wish for,” she said of charter operators such as Robinson. “There are consequences, sometimes expected and sometimes not.”
New leaders, new ideas
Robinson is not alone in thinking that Indiana’s takeover legislation needs work.
A new subcommittee of the state board will review the takeover process during the next few months. In November, it will issue a report that could include recommendations for legislation changes, additional staff to support turnaround oversight, or other tweaks to the framework.
Tony Walker, a Gary lawyer who opposed takeover when he joined the state board just weeks after it approved the first takeovers, is one member of the subcommittee. After helping mediate disputes about Roosevelt High School between Edison and Gary, he said he is convinced that takeover has been good for students — but that Indiana needs changes in state law to permanently resolve confusion that leads to disagreements.
To make takeover work in the future, Walker said, state law must be corrected to add clear guidance on who has authority to give the state board the power to enforce the rules and provide a state takeover budget that can be used, for instance, for emergency repairs on a building.
The Indiana House’s education committee chairman, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he favors making changes to state law to fix takeover.
However, the state’s top education official is no fan of takeover. Ritz said she believes tailored assistance, rather than sanctions, is more effective than outsourcing management at boosting scores at struggling schools.
“Do I believe you have to do a takeover? No,” she said. “I believe if you have the strong supports you don’t need it.”
Ritz’s influence is limited. But her position matters, according to Wong, the education policy professor. He said with a reform as delicate as state takeover, a change from a supportive state superintendent to a skeptical one would have an impact.
“You really need to have the state board and superintendent on the same page,” he said.
It will be crucial to solve these issues soon. Even as the debate over the current takeover schools smolders, four more have reached five straight years of F — two in Evansville and two more in Gary — and face hearings meant to help the state board decide whether to take them over, too.
The state board will have to figure out what to do with Arlington if Tindley does indeed pull out after the 2014-15 school year. Another outside organization could take over Arlington. The school could be made into a charter school. Or IPS could use the new Public Law 1321, passed by lawmakers earlier this year, to convert it to an autonomous school within the district.
And the current takeover schools — now in the third year of their contracts — continue to struggle. Last year, the schools made modest progress on test scores but all were once again rated F by the state. New state test scores won’t be released until later this month, though Tindley and CSUSA have alluded to additional academic gain.
“We still need to wait and see if we can actually turn these schools around,” Behning said. “There’s got to be a way out there, but so far we have not been very successful. I don’t think walking away today is where we ought to be.”
Despite the struggles with takeover schools, some students appreciate the change.
Arlington junior Patricia Oliver says she was given a “fresh start” when Arlington was taken over by the state as part of a last-ditch effort to turn around one of the most struggling schools in Indiana.
“Now at Arlington we have a dress code and uniforms. The hallways are quiet,” Oliver said. “The school is way safer, way more put together, and it runs way more smoothly. The teachers care, they’ll work with you, they’ll stay after class. I want Arlington to stay like this.”
For at least the next school year, it appears Oliver will get her wish. But there is no guarantee that the school — or the four others taken over by the state in 2012 — will exist in the same form a year from now.
This story was the result of a a collaboration between Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star. Star Reporter Eric Weddle can be reached at Eric.Weddle@IndyStar.com