In the new budget passed by the Indiana General Assembly this year, school districts where English language learners make up at least 25 percent of enrollment can qualify for extra state aid.
That is, unless they’re a charter school. And it just so happens that a handful of charter schools do serve especially large shares of students still learning to speak English.
Lawmakers doubled to $11 million an annual grant that supports English learners across the state, but they included a bonus for places where that challenge was the greatest with an added provision that increases funding through the state’s poverty aid formula.
But that increase is only available to traditional public school districts. Only two qualify — Goshen Community Schools and West Noble schools, both in Northeast Indiana.
Yet there are state charter schools, including at least three in Indianapolis and one in East Chicago, that would get those extra funds, too, if lawmakers hadn’t left them out.
Carey Dahncke, the director for the Christel House Academies, said the news came as a surprise. He didn’t realize until long after the budget bill was signed by the governor that his schools wouldn’t see that extra support.
Christel House Academy South had an English learner enrollment of 25.2 percent in 2014-15 and is planning for about 29 percent for the coming school year, Dahncke said.
“It’s abundantly clear it was never intended for a charter school to get that funding,” Dahncke said. “For us it was really perplexing because we are the type of school they were trying to protect.”
Charter schools share language challenges, but not extra money
Lawmakers argue the bill’s language wasn’t intended to exclude charter schools at all.
Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said Goshen and West Noble came to the legislature and said they were struggling to provide for students. They added the extra money to help those districts, he said.
“It didn’t have anything to do with something as favoring traditional against charters,” Kenley said. “It had more to do with trying to identify those two schools the best way we could.”
But in emails with the Indiana Department of Education, Jeremy Williams, superintendent of the Lighthouse charter schools in East Chicago with 29.3 percent of students learning English, said it was clear to him why his schools weren’t included.
“The added weighting is specifically listed for public school corporations and explicitly excludes charters in the state code for this,” Nathan Williamson, with the education department’s English learning office, said in an email.
Goshen’s enrollment is about 29 percent English learners, while West Noble’s is 31.5 percent. Kenley said when the districts came forward, legislators couldn’t identify any other public schools — charter or traditional — that met the criteria.
“There are not charter schools that we know of, or knew of at that time, that have 25 percent ELL,” Kenley said. “If you found a school where that was true, we were not aware of it at the time.”
Across the city, other charter schools that meet or are just on the cusp of meeting the 25 percent mark for English-learner enrollment include Enlace Academy at 57 percent and Imagine Indiana Life Science West at 24 percent.
By comparison, English learners make up about 15 percent of total enrollment at Indianapolis Public Schools, while Perry Township has about 22 percent. Individual schools come a bit closer — IPS School 74 enrolls almost 45 percent English learners, the same as Perry Township’s Southport Elementary School.
The additional formula funding is an experiment for now, Kenley said, and he hopes to learn whether it makes a different in helping the schools better serve their students learning English in the future.
But both Dahncke and Williams said their schools face the same challenges and should have been included.
“They basically are saying that our kids are less worthy of having funding provided for ELL services than a child who chooses to remain in a traditional public school,” Williams said.
Funding drops, but costs stay the same
Dahncke estimates that if Christel House South had been allowed to qualify for the extra state aid, it would equate to an extra $184 per-student, or more than $115,000.
The school also will see less extra poverty aid under the state’s new formula. Going forward, the state determines extra aid based on how many students receive food stamps or welfare rather than the prior method, which was calculated based on the percentage of students who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
That’s a significant challenge for a school like Christel House, where Dahncke said there are many families who are undocumented, and therefore aren’t eligible for those state benefits. Thus, he said, the school’s enrollment remains at about the same level of need, but fewer students qualify for benefits, so the school ultimately loses needed funding.
“We’re getting less funding here than we had previously,” he said. “Our population hasn’t changed. We have same number of poor students and families prior to that, just a less percentage that qualify for (food stamps or welfare).”
From 2015 to 2017, Dahncke said the school’s state aid is projected to drop steeply by about $1,000 per student. The same state data shows the school’s percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch basically unchanged at about 91 percent.
If they had access to the extra funding for English learners, Dahncke said he’d probably use it to hire teachers. The school has struggled to find licensed teachers with English language skills as well as bilingual skills. Right now, the English language learning staff at Christel House South is four — two unlicensed aides and two licensed teachers.
“It’s been a fairly lean program,” Dahncke said. “So we’ll just stay the course. If we had additional funding, we’d hire more teachers, and that’s what we need.”
Williams and Dahncke said that when they don’t get the additional dollars they need for programs such as English learning, they have to pull money from their general funds. Those funds are primarily used for paying for teachers’ salaries and classroom materials, but charter schools usually have to spread the money further to compensate for the fact that they don’t receive property tax dollars to support building and transportation costs.
“Even if it’s 50 cents, it’s ethically wrong to me that our kids don’t have access to that,” Williams said. “Every cent counts.”