Charter schools bemoan steep federal poverty aid reductions

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Charter schools say state Superintendent Glenda Ritz is favoring traditional public schools over charters as the Department of Education distributes shrinking federal aid meant to boost achievement for poor students.

A surprise and sharp reduction in federal Title 1 money means students at Indianapolis charter school Christel House Academy South won’t get extra academic support this year from five teachers that the school planned to hire, but couldn’t afford.

And Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, a charter school where 94 percent of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, took a budget hit of more than $36,000 for the same reason.

Meanwhile, the nearby traditional public schools—where charter students come from—are in some cases getting more aid, despite federal rules designed to prevent unequal treatment. And several charters say the hits to their budgets are more than the federal limits meant to protect schools from disruptive program changes.

Christel House Academy, for instance, experienced a 20 percent, or $121,743, drop in Title 1 funding this year. But Indianapolis Public Schools, where most of Christel House’s students come from, received an 8 percent increase in Title 1 funding of more than $1.5 million.

“The amount that we got was quite surprising because it was a huge decrease,” said Carey Dahncke, chief academic officer for Christel House Academy. “We’re more than a little perplexed. There’s been no change in our population.”

A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education blames the differences in part on mistakes by the charter schools.

But at issue as well is whether charter schools are included in federal rules that require states to hold schools “harmless” from experiencing dramatic Title 1 funding drops of more than 15 percent.

“We ought be protected under the ‘hold harmless’ provision,” Dahncke said. “It should be equitable.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education says the agency is looking into the charter schools’ concerns.

“We are aware of the situation and we have spoken to the state, but we are still gathering information to determine what, if any, next steps are required,” said Dorie Nolt, the education department’s press secretary, in an email to the IBJ.

She did not respond to the IBJ’s request for comment about whether charter schools were part of the hold harmless requirement, but federal guidance released in September 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education suggests charters are included. A six-page memo sent to state Title 1 directors detailed how states could meet the requirements for newly opening and significantly expanding charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Department of Education says the losses to charter schools occurred as part of an overall reduction in the state’s Title 1 funding. More than 60 percent of school districts and charters saw a reduction in their allocations, according to IDOE spokesman Daniel Altman.

Altman said some charter schools experienced steeper reductions than traditional public schools because they reported data incorrectly to the department.

“We are working with those charters to remedy the issue and provide training to keep these issues from arising again in the future,” Altman told the IBJ in a email.

Michelle McKeown, interim executive director of the State Charter School Board, said Indiana’s overall reduction in Title 1 funding does not explain bigger reductions for charter schools.

She pointed out that federal law requires that states “ratably reduce the allocations” to schools.

“In addition to not getting dollars to which they are entitled, which impacts the staff and the programs they would offer, it also affects their ability to do long-term planning,” McKeown said.

Charter school leaders, who pushed at the Statehouse this year for state funding increases to offset extra costs they face in transportation and operations, said the situation represented an unfair funding advantage for traditional public schools.

“When it comes to funding, we should probably try to be as equitable as possible,” said Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, which runs Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. “It’s a little unconscionable to start playing favorites when it comes to whose students-in-need are the most in need.”

At least one Indiana State Board of Education member, Byron Ernest, says he is concerned about the discrepancies in Title 1 reductions. He said several charter school leaders plan to speak to the board about the issue Wednesday during the its monthly meeting.

Ernest, who runs Hoosier Academies charter school, said his role as both a state board member and a charter school leader puts him in a unique position to understand the effects that the drop in federal Title 1 funding has had on school operations.

He said he thinks the board needs to “make sure that the formula has been applied in the correct way.”

“In a state that embraces school choice, if we believe that parents have the opportunity to decide what school they want their children to go to, then that money does belong does belong to these students, “ Ernest said. “It’s federal money intended to be used for at-risk students. We have at-risk students who we want to be providing services for.”

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