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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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