Future of Schools

Tindley's woes, and CEO's departure, raise tough questions for charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Marcus Robinson has long had his critics, but in many ways, his name has been synonymous with the best successes of Indiana’s charter school movement.

Robinson was the driving force behind Tindley Accelerated Schools, the top-scoring charter school network in The Meadows neighborhood of Indianapolis. Tindley post some of the highest test scores in the city despite enrolling many children who must overcome poverty-related barriers to learning.

So revelations over the past two months of financial troubles at Tindley, including questionable travel expenses incurred by Robinson, have rippled far beyond the school.

Robinson said last week he would step down by the end of the school year and leave Tindley, but the controversy raises broader questions for charter schools in Indiana’s school choice epicenter.  Among them:

  • Will the departure of a key leader from one of Indiana’s strongest charter school groups weaken the movement? Robinson’s record and reputation made him one Indiana’s most respected charter school voices. But his last chapter at Tindley is now already serving as an example of the worst fears of charter critics about the potential misuse of public dollars intended to serve children.
  • Will Robinson resurface somewhere else in Indiana’s charter school world? Robinson said his immediate goal is to finish a Columbia University doctorate he has been traveling to New York to pursue, but his next steps after that are in doubt.
  • Are the well-regarded Tindley schools in trouble? The immediate road ahead looks bumpy. School officials pledged that they will solve their money problems, but further expansion plans — which once included ambitions for 14 Tindley schools by 2023 — have been halted.

Tindley champion David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that advocates for educational change, believes Tindley’s setback will be short lived.

“The future is extremely bright, by far brighter than it’s ever been since I’ve been doing this work,” Harris said. “Tindley will not only weather this, they will be a big part of it going forward.”

But Joel Hand of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a group that has lobbied against expanding school choice, said he hopes Robinson’s resignation is seen as a cautionary tale about the potential excesses of charter schools.

“The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children,” he said. “Maybe this is the ultimate accountability for Marcus Robinson and Tindley.”

A high-scoring, fast-growing charter network

For Tindley, it’s not just high test scores that have made the network a charter school darling. Robinson and his team have raised hopes that successful schools can be the centerpiece of a wider effort to improve struggling neighborhoods.

Since the first Tindley school opened in 2004 at the site of abandoned grocery store, The Meadows has seen crime fall and community investments grow as more kids attended, and graduated from, the now six-school network.

“It’s a transformed place,” Harris said. “The ripple effect will be felt for many generations in that community. They had a fabulous vision and a fabulous team, but Marcus was the one that made that come to a reality. What he accomplished is really extraordinary.”

Then-Mayor Greg Ballard hailed the school-led overhaul of The Meadows as a model for other neighborhoods to follow. By its fifth year, the school was exceeding state averages on standardized tests, graduating three-quarters of its students and sending most of them to college. A waiting list of families that wanted to enroll began to lengthen and some families were even moving into The Meadows to be closer to the school.

What followed was more than $60 million in investment in The Meadows, Tindley board member John Neighbors said. That includes the schools, new apartments, a wellness center and a YMCA.

“Had the schools not been successful, it would have been much harder to do that,” Neighbors said.

None of it could have happened without Robinson, Neighbors said. The school was actually rejected the first time it applied for a charter and was only able to secure one after Robinson, then a Cathedral High School teacher, came on board.

But as much as Robinson’s fans credit his leadership with building Tindley into a success, his recent choices have gotten much of the blame for the school’s suddenly murky future.

Financial woes come to light

Robinson has had to explain his own questionable travel spending at the same time he was pushing an aggressive plan to build new schools.

It was that expansion — since 2012, Tindley has added two middle schools and three elementary schools — that helped set the stage for the money problems the network faces today.

The new schools were made possible by a $4.5 million gift from a donor, Robinson said. It was helped along by consistently strong test scores that kept attracting more students. The four schools that have been open long enough to qualify for state grades earned two A’s and two B’s last year.

But Robinson and the Tindley board failed to anticipate the intense competition the new schools would face from a flood of new charter schools. Ballard, who left office in January, nearly doubled the number of city-sponsored charter schools in his tenure to more than 30, leaving many schools — not just Tindley — scrambling to fill their classrooms with enough students to pay their bills.

Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.
PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.

By 2014, Tindley was in enough of a financial squeeze that Robinson abruptly ended a contract with the state to manage Arlington High School, a former Indianapolis Public School that was taken over by the state in 2012, and Tindley pulled out at the end of that school year. He blamed the state for turning down his request for more aid, saying running Arlington had gotten too costly.

The school’s problems intensified later in 2014 when the Indianapolis NAACP criticized the network for its high expulsion rate, perhaps dissuading some families from enrolling their children. Tindley had expelled students at a much higher rate than other schools in the city but Robinson insisted tough discipline was not negotiable in order to ensure stable learning environments.

And by last December, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported a series bleak developments: a $2.8 million cash shortfall, a former treasurer who described the organization as “broke” and a $8.7 million bailout from a state loan fund that equated to nearly half its annual budget.

With all of that going on, reports of Robinson’s spending caught even some of his supporters by surprise.

Former Treasurer Eric Stovall told the Indianapolis Business Journal some of Robinson’s travel expenses, including $10,000 to stay in expensive hotels during several visits to New York and sometimes flying first class were, in his view, “unethical” for the leader of a cash-strapped charter school network.

But Robinson insists he violated no rules and would have paid the extra costs for the more expensive airline tickets and hotel rooms had anyone asked him to.

“Tindley has one of the best charter boards in the country,” he said. “They are very astute and serious about their fiduciary duty. They violated no laws and broke no ethics rules, nor have any of their staff in how they have traveled.”

Travel expenses raise concerns

Board member Neighbors said the board has put together a committee stocked with financial experts that he is confident will craft a plan to lead the school back to fiscal stability.

“The board needs to assure the financial integrity of the school,” he said. “We will conquer these issues if we can keep the kind of people we have in place and keep the parents’ confidence, which we will do.”

But it might be a while before anyone talks about expansion again.

“I don’t think there is additional money to fund growth in this market,” Robinson said.

Neighbors isn’t placing blame on Robinson. In fact, he argued that it’s a mistake to conflate Robinson’s travel expenses, which he said were noticed and addressed more than a year ago, with Tindley’s more recent financial troubles.

“We didn’t find any impropriety in Marcus’ conduct,” Neighbors said. “Maybe he should have thought more carefully about something like this. But he didn’t do it every week. It was a few instances of first class travel and staying in hotels that maybe he shouldn’t have.”

Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.

But Hand, whose organization seeks to defend what it sees as attacks on traditional public schools, said it’s difficult to see public education dollars flowing to an administrator’s lavish travel spending — something he said seems far more likely in a charter network than a public school district.

“I’d be shocked if there was any traditional public school administrator spending their money similarly,” he said. “The vast majority of public schools are cutting all travel for teachers and administrators and for professional development. To hear a story about charter school where the head of school is making these kinds of expenditures is very troubling.”

To Hand, Robinson’s spending, and Tindley’s deep financial woes, demonstrate one of the central dangers that critics of charter schools have long warned about: that relaxed oversight makes the public dollars ripe for misuse.

“Freeing up schools from certain regulations is not a bad thing,” Hand said. “But if its not accompanied with strict oversight and high levels of accountability we can have problems just like this.”

Whereas a public school is overseen by an elected school board accountable to the public, charter school oversight is more complex. Tindley is a private, nonprofit organization with a board of directors that employs its staff, but it also is monitored by the mayor’s office, which serves as its sponsor.

Kristin Hines, the city’s charter school director, noted that the city had called for Tindley to tighten up its financial practices following some recent reviews and audits.

“We continue to routinely and regularly oversee the board and the school’s financial performance, she said. “We have held the school responsible through annual financial reports in the past. We will continue to hold the school accountable to rigorous financial standard and high expectations with regard to board oversight.”

But Hand said the oversight in this case seemed to leave a lot to be desired.

“Doesn’t this kind of speak to the lack of accountability and oversight that is really there for many charter schools?” he said. “The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children.”

A doctorate and an uncertain future

Robinson said the decision to leave Tindley was his alone and was not a result of the network’s financial woes.

“My top priority is finishing this doctorate I started four and a half years ago,” he said. “There was just no way I could do that at the helm of Tindley. The rigors are too much.”

Part of his motivation to finish, he said, is to reinforce with his actions the schools’ mantra for their students: They need to finish what they start academically.

“My first priority is to be a role model for what I expect from kids,” Robinson said.

After that? He’s not sure.

“It will definitely be about kids,” he said.

Robinson has two young children. He’s not necessarily looking to move on from Indianapolis. But he wouldn’t rule it out.

“I would hope my next opportunity would be here,” he said. “But I’m open to whatever.”

Neighbors said he wishes Robinson would have stayed on.

“What’s regrettable, and I hesitate to say this, what we’ve experienced over the last several months created enough stress in Marcus’ own mind to cause him to evaluate his situation and make the decision that he made,” Neighbors said. “I am personally disappointed that we move into a new era without Marcus but I am encouraged by what we have in place.”

 

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.