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Battle for students raises financial concern for turnaround schools

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The tug-of-war over Indianapolis Public Schools students and their records that erupted into public view this week is also a fight over dollars—about $7,500 per student in state funding.

The State Board of Education has ordered four IPS schools be turned over to private operators in the fall due to poor performance. But several state board members criticized IPS Wednesday after those private operators said the school district has stymied their ability to inform students and their parents in the schools about their plans.

IPS officials say they think they have been as helpful as possible, considering the student information is protected by federal privacy laws and given what is, in the end, a competition for students.

The state board plans to send a letter to IPS Superintendent Eugene White ordering the system to give student information to the private operators—Indianapolis-based not-for-profit EdPower and Florida-based for-profit firm Charter Schools USA.

Right now, just 62 percent the students at the four “turnaround” schools have chosen to remain at those schools for another year or else made no choice, which means they will be re-enrolled next school year. That raises the possibility that the schools might have to deal with less funding than IPS had in previous years.

Charter Schools USA, which is in line to operate Manual High School, Howe High School and Emma Donnan Middle School, has 1,653 students that—either through a formal choice or by default—will remain at those schools next year, according to data provided by IPS.

But that means more than 1,000 students—accounting for more than $7.5 million per year in state funding—have said they will attend a different IPS school.

“We will lose money. We will be upside-down,” said Jon Hage, president of Charter Schools USA. But he quickly added that Charter Schools was making a 20-year commitment to Indianapolis, so he views the losses “like an investment.”

Marcus Robinson, president of EdPower, said his organization has no such luxury at Arlington High School, the IPS school it is in line to manage later this year. IPS data show that 622 students at Arlington plan to return next year, meaning more than 350 will not. That’s a difference in funding of more than $2.5 million.

“EdPower has assured all parties that it has no intention of losing any money at Arlington High School.  A contract that would lead to that reality would be unworkable for our organization,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail Wednesday morning. “As a not-for-profit corporation, EdPower does not have the fiscal wherewithal to sustain fiscal losses at Arlington.  As much as we care about the students at Arlington, the public resources available to support the school must be sufficient to orchestrate a successful turnaround of the school.”

Robinson also added that, although EdPower has yet to work out a contract with the Indiana Department of Education, "we believe that the resources will be there.”

Jim Larson, the Department of Education’s director of school improvement and turnaround, said a first-year dip in enrollment followed by gains in subsequent years would be consistent with school turnaround efforts in other cities, such as Chicago.

In addition, he noted that both EdPower and Charters Schools USA have shown a commitment to make the schools a success, no matter how many students they end up with. For example, Larson pointed to the fact that Charter Schools USA has already hired 40 staff members—even though it has yet to sign a contract to manage the three IPS schools. Those hires include the athletic directors at Manual and Howe high schools, and the entire fine arts staff at Manual.

But Larson understands the frustration of the school operators, who have complained that IPS has prevented them from making presentations to students and parents on an equal footing with the school district.

That’s mainly because IPS waited until late February to release any names and mailing addresses of students, and still has not released phone numbers and disciplinary records. The four schools were designated for takeover in August.

“We haven’t been able to communicate with students because [IPS] won’t release the data,” Rosiline Floyd, director of research and education at EdPower, told the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

“That’s very disturbing, to say the least, state board member Neil Pickett responded. "That’s unacceptable. ... How can you make a choice unless you have all the information?”

IPS’ marketing chief Mary Louise Bewley said the complaints are unfounded. She noted that IPS helped organize meetings for parents in January, during which IPS and the private operators made presentations to the students at the turnaround schools.

Also, in early February, IPS sent a letter to parents with students at the turnaround schools, which again presented the options they could choose from next year. The letter, she said, included information about both IPS and about the private operators’ plans for the turnaround schools.

“We have bent over backward. To hear us described as throwing up a block is insulting,” Bewley said. She added, “Competition’s good until IPS competes, and then somehow we’re the bad guy.”

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