Public money, private purchases: the complicated arrangement between Tech Trep, homeschoolers, and a rural Indiana school district
Outschool LEGO classes and 3D printers. Routers, computers, and Disney+ and Hulu subscriptions. Ballet lessons and a model train. These are just a few of the items that homeschoolers are buying with state funds through a new program run by a Utah-based company in collaboration with an Indiana public school district.
Here’s how it works, as reported by Chalkbeat Indiana and education blogger Steve Hinnefeld. Tech Trep, the Utah company, advertises its services to homeschoolers. Cloverdale Community Schools, the Indiana public school district that partners with Tech Trep, receives tuition support from the state for each kid who enrolls. Cloverdale keeps 20% of the state funding and passes the rest to Tech Trep. Of that, families can use a point system to order up to $1,700 worth of educational items or services per child.
Meanwhile, Indiana’s refusal to fund public school textbooks means that parents and guardians of children in public school must pay to “rent” basic curricular materials such as books and technology—including parents who send their kids to Cloverdale's public schools. For a family with three children in public school, that can mean an annual expenditure of over $500. And public school teachers routinely pay out of pocket to decorate their classrooms and to provide books, Kleenex, snacks, and writing utensils for their students. In the pandemic, some public school staff have needed to purchase their own PPE.
Yet somehow Indiana has money to spare when it comes to private educational expenditures, even when “educational” is loosely defined.
A recent discussion in a private Facebook group for Tech Trep families and others interested in joining Tech Trep made it clear that some enrollees are there just to make purchases with state money. Speaking of other Tech Trep services, one commenter said “I use NONE of TT resources. It’s nice that they are there if I need them but I don’t.” The parent continued, “I school my children on my own and at home. I consider that homeschooling. Tech Trep calls it distance learning and that works legally for them...”
Why is this legal?
Resources invested in public schools benefit all the kids in a community across years. Whether such dollars pay for online math textbooks, school playgrounds, or science labs, an elected board has the responsibility of making sure resources are fairly distributed across school populations. But a state handout to homeschoolers is different. A model train may benefit one child. A Netflix subscription may entertain a home. But does Indiana really want to pay Cloverdale, a rural school district, to launder state funds so that homeschoolers can purchase Netflix subscriptions and trips to the zoo, while many public school districts struggle to pay and retain teachers, maintain and repair school buildings, and offer high-quality curricular materials that they hope their parents and caregivers can pay for?
Lots of public school families would benefit from state-subsidized private lessons, LEGO bricks, and personal computers. Is Indiana ready to extend those benefits to all? Or perhaps more on point: Is Indiana actually preparing to substitute those kinds of à la carte purchases for the structured education and opportunities provided in public school classrooms? While Senate GOP leaders have backpedaled a bit on the concept of a new choice path to benefit some students, education scholarship accounts (ESAs) are still being considered this legislative session. The bizarrely under-the-radar Tech Trep arrangement, with its lack of oversight, may be providing a glimpse of the Wild West of ESAs—a program which wouldn’t even be administered by the Indiana Department of Education, but would fall under the purview of the state treasurer.
Lots of public school families would benefit from state-subsidized private lessons, LEGO bricks, and personal computers. Is Indiana ready to extend those benefits to all? Is Indiana actually preparing to substitute those kinds of à la carte purchases for the structured education and opportunities provided in public school classrooms?
How long will one small rural school district and an out-of-state business be able to profit off sending state money to homeschooling families for private purchases, as the Indiana Association of Home Educators pointed out back in October? For shame, Indiana. It’s time to shut this “program” down.
P.S. In a legally dubious move (at least in Indiana), Tech Trep advertises to families in its order form that "New Technology items purchased 100% with state funds remain the property of the state for 3 years. Many families like to pay for part of the cost to be exempt from this rule and be able to keep the items at the end of the year. This year, you may privately purchase an Amazon gift card for approximately 10% of the cost of the item and give the gift card number to the person placing the order during the zoom meeting, so that we are only paying for 90% of the cost and you can keep the item at the end of the year as a surplus item."
Our public school districts have never offered that if we pay 10% up front, we can keep the iPads and laptops that we rent from the district through textbook/technology fees!
Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County (ICPE–Monroe County) advocates for all children to have high quality, equitable, well-funded schools that are subject to democratic oversight by their communities.
We are a nonpartisan and nonprofit group of parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and other community members of Monroe County and surrounding areas.
Speech given by Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer
Location: Rotary Club in Bloomington
Thank you for having me here today.
I first got involved in advocating for public schools in 2010 when the state had just slashed $300 million from the public education budget and we here locally had to put a referendum on the ballot--working hard to bring back teachers & programs that had been cut. I had four children in MCCSC at that time and so, when asked to represent one of my kids’ schools, I agreed to go to a meeting about the referendum and wound up being a canvassing coordinator for the campaign. That referendum campaign of 2010 was a beautiful community effort—people from all walks of life came together in whatever way they could, to restore funding for our local public schools. We were very successful and much of what we are able to offer our students in MCCSC today is thanks to that effort and the generosity of the community and the continued referendum dollars.
Why did people, many of whom did not have children in the schools, work for and vote for giving this funding to our community schools? This is important to think about. Maybe it’s because people recognized that great public schools help make this area a great place to live. Maybe some people recognized that vibrant public schools also help improve home values and real estate healthy. I’m sure many either work or have a spouse, neighbor, relative , child working for the public schools. Our public schools are big employers in our communities. Or maybe people just recognized that all children should have the right to a great education.
As a parent, I have seen firsthand how four very different individuals have benefited from a well-resourced school system. My oldest went from being too shy to hardly talk to a kid in the marching band, to being given two leadership awards at the end of his senior year. My next child, the one who struggled with his emotions and temper in middle school, got through that time thanks to patient teachers and principals who understood adolescent behavior—and he is graduating with honors from IU next month. My daughter loved the peer tutoring class where she worked with kids in the self-contained special education classroom. She loved feeling helpful and every day she looked forward to being with the friends she made there. My middle schooler is a book worm thanks to his elementary school librarian who Skyped with authors and encouraged the love of reading.
I tell you these stories to illustrate the depth and richness of the educational experience for my kids because it is reflective of what all kids should have access to in our public school system in Indiana. Every child should have access to the extracurriculars like marching band; every child should have certified licensed, experienced teachers who understand child development; every child should be in an integrated setting and learn from others who are different than they are; every child should have a school librarian with a well-resourced library. Sadly, this is not always the case. Where my kids have benefited from a teacher librarian at their schools, our neighbors in surrounding districts only have the state-mandated one librarian to the entire school district. Other neighboring schools have just one social worker to share between two small rural school districts. There are schools that are crumbling in Indiana and others are not able to afford enough nurses. We have large disparities with what our public schools are able to offer to children from town to town…and it’s growing. The funding for our community public schools has not kept up with inflation in Indiana and we are feeling the effects. While the urgency around supporting public schools in our area may not be felt as keenly as it was back in 2010, the need to support our public schools is no less urgent now and the threat is continuing to grow.
This is because, following the $300 million budget cuts felt in 2010—(money which the legislature, I must add, despite sitting on a surplus of over $2 billion dollars, has never put back) …a set of bills was passed in 2011 that dramatically changed the teaching and learning environment in Indiana. Our Indiana legislature adopted the educational reform policies of charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and high stakes testing. They all came to the forefront of educational policy all at once under Governor Mitch Daniels and then state superintendent Tony Bennett. Pointing to public education’s so-called failure as justification, these measures of the “money following the child” or “school choice” created the situation we find ourselves in today of competing for dollars and resources, with tests used as the stick and carrot to control what goes on inside our schools.
It was in response to these reforms, that the Indiana Coalition for Public Education was formed at the state level in 2011. Recognizing the threat to the funding stability of public schools, a group of retired educators and community members organized together to fight for the funding and to inform the community. Several months later, we formed our group, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County. Some of our first founders were retired educators, many of whom some of you would recognize: Harmon Baldwin, Mike Walsh, Ron Jensen, Phil and Joan Harris, Carl Zager, Ellen Brantlinger and Roger Fierst to name several. I had met many of these folks on the referendum campaign and was happy to come to learn as a parent and concerned citizen. Eventually, we brought more parents and community members in and our fledgling group grew as we worked to support our local public schools, inform the community about legislation that affects funding, and continue to try to empower our citizens to act and vote in support of public education.
We are a nonpartisan group because this is a nonpartisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike have love their public schools. Republicans and Democrats alike have gotten behind some of these reforms like charters and high stakes testing. But we not nonpolitical. Politics is about our relationship to power and public education’s future is caught in a major power struggle.
In order to understand the threat to our public schools, it’s important to understand the major reform issues because they can be confusing.
Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. A voucher goes to the student to attend a private, almost always religious school. It doesn’t always cover the cost and, unlike how they were sold to us in the beginning, more than half of voucher recipients have never set foot in public school and likely never intended to do so. You can make $90,000 for a family of four and still qualify for a partial voucher. Schools that accept vouchers do not have to accept all students. They can refuse to accept students who identify LGBTQ or whose family does. They can refuse students who have special educational needs or behavior problems, or who are often those with lower test scores. This is why the “school choice” policy really is about schools choosing and not the other way around. There is no auditing of their budgets required by law so most of it goes unchecked. Since their inception in 2011, we have spent well over half a billion tax dollars to vouchers. The trouble is also that the state legislature has no line item for this cost and has never added to the budget to offset the expense. It is like a hole in the overall bucket of our education funding and it is steadily draining out as it continues to expand.
Another way in which public funds have been redirected from public schools is through the expanding charter schools in our state. Charters are often referred to as “public” schools because they are publicly funded and free to families. But they are not accountable to the public through a publicly elected board. They have different requirements and do not have to adhere to all of the education laws that public schools do, including having licensed certified teachers. We also don’t get choices about whether they come to our town taking students and, thus, funding away from neighborhood public schools. They are approved or authorized by a number of different entities in Indiana, places like Ball State, the mayor’s office in Indianapolis, and even the religious institution Grace College and Seminary. Every authorizer then gets 3% of the per pupil state funding going to the charter school. Charters were originally begun in the 90s as a way to provide some innovation and cut some red tape in order to bring back cool practices and ideas to the whole of all public schools so that all might benefit. But now that is no longer the case. Charter schools remain separate school systems in and of themselves. Every time a child leaves the neighborhood public schools to go to a charter, his or her per pupil amount of state money goes with him or her—the money following the child.
Now, some charters are very good, some much worse, but as a whole, their performance generally shows them to be about the same as public schools. But charters require there to be someone in the child’s life looking for options, filling out forms for a waitlist, and providing transportation and often lunch. Sometimes they have mandatory parental volunteer hours. That means that the kids whose parents are working two jobs or who are in some of the most dire situations are not going to the charter schools. We also have to ask ourselves, do we want kids to have excellent public schools only if they win the lottery? Why are we destabilizing public community schools who lose funding and often engaged families to give a few kids a separate education? Do we have the money to fund separate systems of education adequately?
Virtual charter schools have been in the news lately as a glaring example of a lack of oversight. The online charter model has grown rapidly in Indiana such that there are now about 13,000 students statewide who login (or not) from home to go to school. Well, it turns out that last year, across 6 virtual charter schools, 2000students never earned a single credit of school despite being enrolled for nearly a year. That means $10 million went to educating students who never did any work or failed in every class. The state legislature is thinking about adding some accountability measures to these online schools and capping their funding at $80 million. One of the accountability factors they’ve been tossing around is requiring that all students actually live in Indiana because, apparently, that’s been a problem. Remember that bucket of money? This is another hole…
These are the schools you hear about when the legislature talks about “school choice” and creating a marketplace of competition for schools which they believe will create a better product. Remember: competition involves winners and losers. Do we really want a six year-old to be on the losing end of equal educational opportunity?
Public schools are succeeding. Our graduation rates are better than ever before. The opportunities we can provide to students are more diverse, exciting and interesting than ever before. Yet, it is the narrative of failing public schools and the need to quantify success that has brought about the third reform that has changed the overall climate and that is testing.
The state has changed the test so many times in the past decade that one can hardly keep track. This year they are rolling out a new test and I think they hope we parents will be pacified by the fact that it is no longer the ISTEP, they have renamed it the I-LEARN. It’s not really the test itself that most parents and teachers object to, it is the fact that high stakes are attached to it and that makes it become more of an emphasis.
It used to be that tests were used as a temperature check to just get an overall feel for where we were in education. But now testing is tied to punishment: things like the teacher’s pay, job security and evaluation, and the stigma of a letter grade on your school. Add to that the threat of a state takeover if you get four F’s in a row, and you have a pretty stressful situation.
Also: consider the fact that the highest correlated factor for a test score is the child’s family’s socioeconomic and educational background, and we can guess that the lowest grades will tell us more about the wealth of the students in that school than the effectiveness of teaching or quality of learning.
That’s not to say that kids in poverty can’t learn, but it is true that a child who was sleeping in his car last night is not as concerned with long division in the morning. Children do not learn in a vacuum. In fact, almost half of all children in public schools qualify for free and reduced lunch. These numbers are increasing. Children living in poverty need more resources. When we talk about the problem of public schools, we can pretty much guarantee it’s related to poverty. These kids come to us hungry or sick. They often deal with moving from place to place, violence, addiction, and all kinds of trauma. Success for these kids involves meeting their basic needs for safety and health so that they are ready to learn. Kids can’t eat tests.
But what happens when success is only seen as reflected by a score on math and reading? Well, if you’re not careful, many children can lose social studies, history, art and music, they lose time to play at recess and explore and do projects and put on plays and go on field trips. You create people who are wondering “what do I have to know for the test” and not interested in learning for learning’s sake. High test scores should be a by-product of excellent teaching—not its purpose. Most schools here are not solely fixated on tests. We have a community that expects us to educate the whole child. Other communities are not so lucky.
I know that as a parent I want far more than can be found on a test score. I want my children to be lifelong learners, curious, kind, to think outside of the box, to know how to express themselves and get along with others. The funny thing is, this is what the business community wants to.
When you look at the what the World Economic Forum came out with recently as the top skills they see as will be necessary in the workforce to thrive in the year 2020, their top ten list is:
1) Complex problem solving
2) Critical thinking
4) People management
5) Coordinating with others
6) Emotional intelligence
7) Judgement and decision making
8) Service orientation
10) Cognitive Flexibility
But instead of looking at these goals and going to decades of educational research and instead of listening to EDUCATORS THEMSELVES regarding how best to teach and enhance these skills, our legislature has taken it upon itself to assume that these things can be found on a test and has continuously sought to change the standards and pathways and tests and requirements to try to get us there, disrupting education continuity and frustrating kids, parents and teachers alike.
We need to stop and listen to our educators. They are the experts in education and they can get us there. There is a reason that teachers are leaving the profession. It’s not just that they are wildly underpaid in Indiana (we are dead last in the country for how much we’ve increased teacher salaries since 2002 and we are 35th in the nation for average of teacher pay), it is that increasingly the state has taken away the local control over what is taught in classroom and how and when it is taught…by mandating all kids to be on the same page at the same time developmentally with regard to test scores. Teachers are the professionals who know how children learn and when they learn and how to reach them. But we are not respecting them in pay, we are not listening to them. The state gives no money for teacher professional development to learn the latest practices, but they will, apparently, pay for them to be trained in firearms (a bill this session).
Consider the purpose of public education. Public schools were created so that kids could learn what they needed in order to be able to participate in our democracy. Not only does that mean they should be able to find what they are moved by and passionate about and good at in order to make a living and contribute to society, but they should also learn to get along with others who think differently, believe differently, look different than they do and respect and value those differences. We thought long ago about creating a system in which all children had an opportunity to learn and succeed. We worked as a country to ensure that that system of education was open not only to landowners, but the poor as well. We made sure it was also available to women, to people of color, to immigrants, and to the differently abled. It was about trying to ensure that all children had a equal chance at a piece of the pie. This is the promise of public education that, while never fulfilled, is deeply American.
Instead of a concern for the common good and a focus on ensuring that all of our public schools are supported, the narrative surrounding public schools has become about competition, free markets, and “my child, my choice, my tax dollars.”
Those tax dollars are put toward our common good. We don’t ask firefighters or police officers to compete for better services. We don’t take our tax dollar vouchers from the library because we want to buy our ownbooks. We don’t get a chunk of tax dollars to put towards a country club membership because we don’t want to use the public parks or pool. We recognize that there is great value in providing good roads, libraries, parks and services so that everyone can be better off and live in community with one another.
It’s not about just my children. It’s about all children. It’s about creating a world in which all children can succeed because the stronger they are, the healthier they are, the more able to create and produce and work and innovate and share---the better off we will all be.
Public education is a public good and a social, civic responsibility. We all benefit from its strength. The budget is being discussed right now. Ask your legislators to increase the foundational support for public schools to 3% annually for the next budget biennium to give all public schools a helping hand.
ICPE–Monroe County is volunteer run. We host a farmer’s market booth, put on forums for political candidates and forums about issues that surround public education—issues like testing, teaching, and literacy. We believe that our public schools are the heart of our community. We encourage you to learn more, volunteer for your local public schools and support them.
Our children depend on it.
The future of our country and our democracy does, too.
Indiana is one of a handful of states that do not fund textbooks for public school districts. Instead, our state encourages districts to pass the costs along to families and to pursue debt collection if families are unwilling or unable to pay. Families who receive free or reduced lunch can qualify for textbook assistance, but money is tight for many families who do not meet the cutoff.
The costs are considerable, anywhere between $100 to $300 per student, depending on the district and the grade level. (Wealthier districts are likely to charge and provide more—another avenue for disparities in the academic experience to creep into our schools.) Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation sued more than 500 families over three months this year for unpaid bills, including bills for textbooks. Think about it. Textbooks and other curricular materials are not exactly extras. They are central to teaching and learning. And yet our state pits schools' need for these essential tools against the finances of families who may struggle to pay. So much for a free public education. In 2014, then-state-superintendent Glenda Ritz asked legislators to fully fund public education and pay for textbooks by adding $70 million to the schools' budget. They didn't.
To put that $70 million in perspective: $70 million or thereabouts is currently paid by Indiana's public school families for what is supposedly a "free" public education, and yet, for the 2016-2017 school year, Indiana sent $146 million in public dollars to private, mainly religious schools through the voucher program. In other words, even though the state is not paying for a basic necessity, textbooks, in public schools, we fling money away to schools which are not owned by the public and have no accountability to the public--no public oversight through elected boards, no transparency in budgets, curriculum, or hiring practices.
To add insult to injury, private school parents and homeschoolers in Indiana can write off school supplies and textbooks when they file their taxes, but we don't get to write off those costs if we send our kids to public schools.
House Bill 1169 would address this problem. It would require public schools to provide curricular materials at no cost to students, and would establish a fund and appropriations for state reimbursement of public schools’ curricular costs.
Our challenge is to get state legislators to support House Bill 1169 and the idea of actually funding textbooks for all public school students. Lawmakers are only going to do this if they are contacted by people in their districts.
We have written a petition asking legislators to act this session to eliminate textbook fees. We hope you will sign it and share it with your friends.
Petition to the Indiana Legislature: Support HB 1169 to Eliminate Textbook Fees for Public School Students (click here to sign)
Other ways you can act:
1. Share your story in the comments here. How much did textbooks cost you this year? Were there things you didn't do or buy in order to be able to afford to pay for textbooks?
2. Call or write Representative Tim Brown, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Representative Jeffrey Thompson, the chair of its K-12 subcommittee, to demand that HB 1169 receive a hearing. You can reach their offices through the House switchboard at 800-382-9841.
3. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Most newspapers have online submission forms. Please email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you need help finding your paper's online submission page.
4. Write a letter to your state senator and state representative. If you don't already know who your legislators are, click here to find them.
5. Write a letter to your superintendent and school board members asking them to take action to support HB 1169.