IPS weighs the pros and cons of textbook charges

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IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public School Board members asked their staff to solve a tricky math problem Wednesday: If only 7 percent of IPS students pay for their textbooks, is it worth it for the district to make them free to everyone?

The question arose after the district’s legislative lobbyist, Libby Cierzniak, warned board members about a possible push by state lawmakers to change the way poor children become eligible for free textbooks.

Under current law, children who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch automatically receive textbooks — a cost that the state helps districts cover, Cierzniak said. To qualify, a family of four must have an annual income no greater than $43,500.

A change, which Cierzniak said is being floated by some lawmakers as a possible new bill for the upcoming legislative session, could add an additional step to that process. Instead of receiving textbooks automatically, families who receive free or reduced price lunch would have to fill out forms verifying their incomes before they can receive the textbooks.

Families can qualify for free lunch and free textbooks in several ways. They can demonstrate their incomes, for example, by showing they have already qualified for other poverty programs like food stamps. Most students qualify that way, IPS staff said. But some families sign up for free lunch by simply stating their incomes without providing proof.

That bothers some lawmakers, who fear it leaves an opening for fraud, Cierzniak. Those legislators pushed for the same revision in the 2013 session, but their effort was not successful. Cierzniak said she heard the attempt is being revived again for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. The change would affect the 85 percent of IPS’s roughly 30,000 who receive free and reduced priced lunch.

Cierzniak said IPS should lobby against any bill aiming to make that change. She argued most IPS families already provide proof of income in order to qualify for the federal food stamp program. For IPS, where poverty is growing quickly, requiring those families to provide an additional proof could create a burden, she argued. Over 15 years, the percent of children in IPS eligible for food stamps has jumped almost 25 percentage points to 68.2 percent of students, with more than a third of that growth coming since the start of 2008 recession.

Any new law ought to allow families who have already proved their income through food stamps or another program to automatically qualify, Cierzniak said. Otherwise it creates a huge amount of unnecessary paperwork for IPS and for poor families that could end up preventing deserving children from getting free books only because they have failed to fill out extra documents.

“It would be a real problem for IPS, requiring the families of 20,000 kids to jump through hoops when they’ve already been through the food stamp process,” she said.

Board member Annie Roof had a different question: how many children are actually paying for textbooks in a district with so few wealthy families?

IPS staff said roughly half of those children not on free or reduced-price lunch — or only about 7 percent of the district’s enrollment — do not ultimately pay for their books and are turned over to collection, which rarely results in IPS receiving much money. Those families that fail to pay are often “working poor,” board member Diane Arnold said, who are burdened with obligations like child care costs that leave little money to cover textbooks.

That means only roughly 7 percent of all IPS students generally pay their textbook bills, IPS staff said. As a result, the total revenue the district receives from textbook sales could be less than $300,000 for a district with a budget of $263 million annually.

“Would it be more cost effective to say if you come to IPS and don’t qualify, we’ll pay your textbooks?” board member Annie Roof asked. By eliminating the cost of manpower to send letters in pursuit of outstanding bills and for hiring collection companies, Roof reasoned, IPS might be able to save money and offer a benefit to families that charter schools and neighboring districts don’t offer.

Ferebee said he would have staff research the costs and benefits of such a move and report back to the board.

“I think we have to have more conversation about it,” he said.

The legislative committee meets monthly to discuss how IPS deals with state laws and policies. With the 2014 legislative session coming in January, Cierzniak listed several other issues the district should watch for. Among them: Laws that might compel school districts to share space or sell school buildings to charter schools, a possible expansion of public support for preschool, changes to the accountability system and alterations to tax law.

UPDATE: For more background, Community Newspaper Holdings’ statehouse reporter Maureen Hayden wrote in May about legislative changes on textbook charges and steps taken last session to tighten up the program’s rules.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”