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.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.