Future of Schools

Choice is shaping IPS, as thousands of families enroll their children in private, charter and township schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When it comes to attracting students, Indianapolis Public Schools faces fierce competition.

Thousands of parents who live in the district choose to enroll their children in charter, township or private schools. The struggle to attract students is the backdrop for changes sweeping the district, including expanding popular magnet programs and moving to close three high schools.

This August, at a heated meeting about the plan to close high schools, Indiana Rep. Ed DeLaney, a Democrat who represents part of the district, pushed IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee to talk about how many students the district is losing to charter schools.

When Ferebee didn’t offer a tally, DeLaney continued to prod.

“Are you trying to grow the system, the high school system or not?” DeLaney asked.

As it stands, lots of families are opting out of the system. Last year, about 16,172 students who lived within IPS boundaries attended charter schools, traditional public schools in other districts or private schools with state vouchers, according to data Chalkbeat obtained from the Indiana Department of Education. (Students who attend private schools without receiving vouchers are not tracked by the state.)

Source: Data from the Indiana Department of Education. Analysis by Dylan Peers McCoy.

In his exchange with Delaney, Ferebee downplayed the importance of competing for students.

“Our mission, our vision is centered around supporting the students that choose IPS,” he said. “If we attract more students to IPS by enhancing the service that we provide to our current students, great, so be it.”

But afterward, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that the district expects the plan to create high school academies — which allow students to choose career and academic focus areas — could attract new students to IPS.

“We see this as an opportunity for our current students but also an opportunity for students that may not be choosing IPS currently,” he said.

The dispute caused a minor stir on social media among critics of the current IPS administration who said it showed that the district wasn’t trying to compete with charter schools.

Superintendents in school districts across the country are grappling with a big question: Whether to compete with other schools for students or to partner with them in an effort to contain acrimony and serve families. Since Ferebee took the helm in 2013, the district has been using both tactics, pushing plans that are meant to attract families while also working closely with charter operators.

The clearest example of the growing comity between the district and charter sector are innovation schools, which are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits but still considered part of the district. But those schools are also supposed to appeal to more families, ultimately boosting the district’s enrollment.

Even before the era of school choice policies such as charter schools, IPS enrollment had been dwindling for decades. Flight to the suburbs and integration busing, which sent students across the district and from IPS to neighboring township districts, helped shrink the district from nearly 109,000 students at its peak to about 40,000 in 2001, when the state allowed charter schools.

But in more recent years, the flow of students out of the district has been fueled by policy decisions from state lawmakers that have promoted school choice programs touted by national policymakers like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The legislature has given families state dollars to pay private school tuition. It has made it easier to open charter schools and for students to attend public schools in neighboring districts. Last year, IPS enrolled about 30,000 students.

For some families, school choice has been a boon, giving them the chance to choose schools outside the district without paying tuition. But it has also made it more difficult to sustain the traditional public schools. In part, that’s because the state funding schools receive is based on enrollment, and high schools that were built to house thousands of students now educate hundreds.

IPS has a steep climb when it comes to winning back families who have had bad experiences. Donna Jones pulled her children out of Arlington High School because she thought there was too much fighting. “I want to put them in a peaceful environment,” she said.

Jones didn’t rule out sending her children back to IPS, but about two years ago she enrolled them in Lighthouse East, a charter school where they are happy and getting good grades, she said.

Elementary schools like the Butler lab program and the Center for Inquiry magnets, however, have proven that the district can lure some parents back. When the IPS school board was considering plans to create a second Butler lab campus at an emotional meeting last week, parent Eric Rumschlag said that his family chose IPS because of the Butler lab school.

“We were preparing to send our son to private school when we received word that he had gotten into the lab school,” he said. “Our son has thrived under the lab school’s approach.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.