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.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

let the games begin

Assembly pushes for $1.5 billion boost to education spending

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

In a tight budget year, New York State’s Democratic-led Assembly wants to increase education spending by $1.5 billion, officials announced late Monday night.

The proposed increase  which would bring total education spending to $27.1 billion  is significantly more than the governor’s suggested $769 million increase. Still, the amount is a slightly smaller boost than the Assembly backed last year, which is likely a reflection of a difficult fiscal situation faced by the state this year.

State officials are fighting against a budget deficit, a federal tax plan that could harm New York, and the threat of further federal cuts. The potential lack of funding could be the only sticking point in an otherwise quiet budget year for education matters.

As part of its education agenda, the Assembly backed a number of programs it has in the past. The plan supports the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is designed to help boys and young men of color reach their potential, and “community schools,” which act as service hubs that provide healthcare and afterschool programs.

The release of this plan kicks off the final stretch of the state’s budget process. The governor has already outlined his proposals and the Senate will likely follow soon, setting up the state’s annual last-minute haggling.

The budget is due by April 1, but could always be resolved later similar to last year.