Local | May 13, 2013

Let’s invest more in educational success – such as Teach for America, charters

Donors have given generously to education reform efforts in Indianapolis, and their contributions are making a tremendous impact on improving student results. For example, the $31 million invested by private individuals, corporations and foundations to support The Mind Trust’s efforts has helped build the infrastructure needed to transform our city’s schools, making Indianapolis one of the nation’s best-positioned cities to drive systemic change.

Our gratitude for this generosity could not be greater. But if Indianapolis is going to fully seize this moment and give dramatically more kids better educational opportunities, we need to invest more public resources in the most successful programs and schools, regardless of whether they are run by or part of a traditional school district.

Our city’s students deserve to reap the maximum benefit from our public education dollars, and under the current system, too many don’t.

Today’s inequitable system gives school districts control over virtually all public resources dedicated to education, including school facilities. Districts retain control over their dollars and facilities whether the districts are succeeding or failing at helping students to learn.

At the same time, some of the schools and education programs that are making the most significant positive impact on students – including programs that serve districts but operate independently from them -must constantly fundraise to do their work.

Consider Herron High School, a public charter school in Indianapolis. Last year Newsweek, the Washington Post and U.S. News ranked Herron in the top 5 percent of high schools nationwide. It has a waiting list of 275 students. But to expand and serve more Indianapolis students, Herron’s leaders would need to raise several million dollars to procure a school facility, all while they continue to run the school.

Regardless of how effective they are at helping students succeed, public charter schools like Herron are rarely able to use public school facilities. That is particularly troubling when you consider that 21 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools’ buildings are operating at 65 percent capacity or less, according to data from a recent IFF study.

The funding reality for organizations such as Teach for America, TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), College Summit and Summer Advantage USA also highlights how the current system fails to maximize benefit for kids.

Teach for America and TNTP bring fantastic teachers into our community to serve low-income and special needs students. Kids taught by Teach for America corps members show growth among the top quartile of Indiana students, and 90 percent of TNTP’s teachers are rated by supervisors to be as or more effective than other first-year teachers.

College Summit helps low-income students navigate the college application process, equipping them to be three times more likely to enroll in college. And Summer Advantage USA helps low-income students in Indianapolis academically advance by two and a half months during the five-week program.

These groups are doing work that is integral to schools’ mission of helping students to succeed, but students would not be able to benefit from them if it weren’t for philanthropic support. Since 2006, The Mind Trust has raised $13.5 million to help these groups serve more students.

Private generosity should not determine whether students have access to the best programs and schools, especially when so many public resources are available to grow them. While too often individual schools don’t get the resources they need and great teachers are underpaid, school districts control enormous resources.

Across the U.S., districts spent $512 billion in the 2009-2010 school year, according to a June 2012 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the trajectory of funding for districts is up. Spending in IPS, for example, increased by 61 percent, adjusted for inflation, from 1988 to 2008.

In too many cases, districts put these massive resources toward layers of bureaucracy, which makes their failure to better fund the most successful schools and programs all the more concerning.

According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the number of K-12 students in the U.S. increased by 96 percent between 1950 and 2009, while the number of full-time school employees increased by 386 percent. That includes a whopping 702 percent growth in the number of non-teachers.

Consider the contrast in how private foundations, corporations and individuals make their investments in public education efforts. Most private sector donors are extremely careful and strategic in how they allocate funds. They expect organizations competing for dollars to have detailed plans, high-caliber leadership teams, performance benchmarks, and strong evidence of success.

If school districts were to spend their $512 billion as selectively as private funders, the potential for positively impacting students would be tremendous.

Districts would prioritize investing more of their dollars in the most successful programs, such as Teach For America, TNTP and Summer Advantage. Districts’ underutilized school buildings would be given to great schools, including charters, to replicate and expand. And Indianapolis would be much closer to the day when every one of its students, regardless of his or her circumstances, would have the opportunity to get a great education.