Early Childhood

Indiana high school senior to U.S. Secretary of Education: Help me get to college

Rosa Ramos Ochoa, a senior at Ben Davis University High School, was sure she had earned a scholarship under Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program, which can provide students with up to four years of college tuition if they meet certain goals, because she finally had a Social Security number.

But it didn’t matter, she told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during his visit to Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis.

Even though she was such a successful high school student who earned 72 college credits — enough to qualify as a junior in her first year — Ochoa can’t manage to get in-state tuition. It doesn’t matter that she has lived in Indiana since she was 1-year-old. She is still considered undocumented, and that’s all that matters.

“I lost it because I’m not a U.S. citizen,” Ochoa said. “I applied three times before I actually got accepted to 21st Century Scholars. The last time I was in eighth grade, and I really wanted to make a change because my mom works in a warehouse, and she’s had a hard time, and I don’t want to struggle like that in my future.”

Ochoa’s story illustrates a problem Duncan sees across the country, he said.

“It’s honestly one of the biggest frustrations the president and I have,” Duncan said. “We have so many students who have basically lived here all their lives … and to see you do all that hard work and we’re going to deny you the right to go to college? We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

The problems of undocumented students came up more than once as Duncan met with Ochoa and 15 other Marion County students at Crispus Attucks. The education secretary earlier this year criticized Indiana for excluding undocumented students from the state’s On My Way PreK program.

“We have far too many students, particularly from disadvantaged communities, who start kindergarten a year to a year-and-a-half behind,” he said. “I’m happy we’re seeing more governors invest in this, but having said that, there is still a tremendous unmet need. One is the lack of funding for undocumented students.”

During the student panel discussion, one high school student after another told stories about community service, college goals and changes they’d like to see in the city.

“We are being the change by providing 300 bags of food each week for elementary school students,” said Sam Varie, a senior from Lawrence Central High School. “We’re showing peers the importance of serving people in need.”

Ochoa is part of a schoolwide effort to raise money to send a Guatemalan student to high school. It is not free in Guatemala like it is in the U.S.

For her part, Ochoa is determined to continue her studies despite challenges in her past — the move from Mexico as a baby, a father who went to prison, a single mom whose only option was to work hard with little reprieve and next to no money for school.

She holds down a job after school, as well, working at a call center. She manages to do her homework while she’s there. She hopes to study nursing and become a neonatal nurse who helps take care of babies in the intensive care unit after they are born.

“It’s kind of hard — it’s not being punished — but now come other things, sometimes, because of decisions they made, not me,” Ochoa said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Pence has said Indiana took cues from rules for other federal grant programs when it denied undocumented poor children access to the state’s new preschool tuition aid pilot program.

Duncan says that’s absurd — and it needs to change.

“We want to continue to challenge that,” Duncan said. “It’s a wrong reading of the … statute. So we’re hoping Indiana does the right thing and fixes it. I don’t know of another state that’s both expanding access and denying opportunity. That’s a conflict of values that we will always challenge and never support.”

As for Ochoa, she is hoping to get private scholarships to send her to college. She’s applying for many, and she’s already been accepted to Marion University and IUPUI. Before she could even walk off the stage tonight, she was already being approached by adults from organizations across the city who wanted to help her.

Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts said Ochoa is not the only student in the district with such a story.

He turned to her after the panel, listing her accomplishments — Indiana high school student, academic honors diploma, associate’s degree from Vincennes University — but he said it with an air of disbelief because come graduation in June, it doesn’t make a difference.

Ochoa said other students don’t realize quite how fortunate they are to get more choices about how to pay for school.

“So it’s practically like I’ve never been here, but I’ve been here this whole time,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t born here, I’d like the same opportunity they have.”

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

hope on the horizon

With promise of new federal money, more low-income Colorado families could get help with child care

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Thousands of additional Colorado families might be able to pay for child care if a federal spending bill due in March fulfills the pledge of a recently approved budget deal.

That’s because the deal, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump earlier this month, promised new money for a subsidy program that helps low-income parents pay for child care. In Colorado, the program is oversubscribed with more than 1,300 children on waitlists statewide.

While the spending bill won’t be finalized until March 23, advocates in Colorado say they think there’s a good chance the new child care money — $2.9 billion for the whole country over two years — will survive the negotiation process.

“I think that we will see this go through,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“I don’t think that child care and the block grant will be the major point of contention,” he said, referring to the federal grant that helps fund the subsidies.

(Trump’s own budget proposal, released three days after he signed the budget deal, doesn’t include increased child care block grant funding, but some observers say the budget deal holds more sway.)

If the two-year spending bill passes with the new child care funding included, Colorado could gain around $35 million, according to an estimate from the national anti-poverty group CLASP. That’s on top of the $150 million Colorado would get over the two-year period if the program’s funding simply stayed flat.

Practically speaking, the additional $35 million could mean child care subsidies for an additional 2,700 Colorado children over two years, according to a separate CLASP analysis.

State officials declined to comment on the federal budget proposal, saying in an email, “It is possible that, if approved, we could see an increase in services, but right now it’s all theoretical.”

Low-income parents who are working, looking for work, or in school make up the largest chunk of people eligible for child care subsidies, which are offered through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and administered by the state’s counties. About 31,000 children were served through the program last year.

In addition to child care subsidies, the federal block grant helps pay for a number of other programs, including child care licensing and the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

El Paso County officials say the new federal money could help them eliminate the waitlist for subsidies they had to start for the first time in January. There are 196 children on the list, and it’s growing steadily.

Julie Krow, executive director of the county’s human service department, said some parents may opt for unlicensed child care if they can’t get a subsidy, sending their children to stay with relatives or neighbors during the workday.

The quality of such care varies widely and is mostly unregulated by the state.

“We don’t want to see kids left in unsafe situations because of this,” Krow said, referring to the shortage of subsidies.

When early childhood programs are underfunded, she said, child abuse and neglect cases, which are also in her department’s purview, can rise.

The new federal child care dollars would help reduce or eliminate subsidy waitlists across Colorado, but wouldn’t completely satisfy the need. That’s because the number of children on waitlists represents only a fraction of those eligible for subsidies but not served.

For now, Krow is hopeful the new money will be approved and sent quickly to states and then to counties.

“It’s a program I really believe in,” she said. “As soon as those federal dollars come out, I’m hoping the state has a plan and they are out the door.”