Monroe County Community School Corp. board member Keith Klein asked an important question last week when the board was voting to put a school-funding referendum on the November ballot: Will “winners and losers” result from Indiana’s growing reliance on property-tax referenda to fund school operating expenses?
The answer appears to be yes. The school districts where citizens have voted to raise property taxes in order to better fund their schools include some of the wealthiest districts in the state. In less well-off districts, school-funding referenda have typically been defeated.
The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at the Indiana University School of Education recently released a policy brief on Indiana school-funding referenda, along with a data base of results. They provide timely information about the referenda that have been attempted since the current system for funding school took effect last year.
In 2009 and so far in 2010, 13 school districts have asked voters to raise property taxes to support their general funds, which pay for most operating expenses, including salaries and benefits. (The MCCSC referendum this fall is to increase the general fund).
Nine of the districts were successful. And six of those nine ranked in the top 10 percent of Indiana’s wealthiest school districts, according to one measure of wealth. None of the districts where referenda were defeated were among the state’s wealthiest.
One way to compare school-district wealth is to look at the ratio of the total assessed value of property in the district to the district’s school enrollment (called ADM, for average daily membership). A district with a high assessed value-to-ADM ratio can significantly boost per-student funding with a modest increase in the property tax rate.
You can find this information from the “school data” page on the Indiana Department of Education website. Find the district you’re interested in, and click on “corporation statistical profile” at the lower right. The top item on the page is “assessed value per ADM.” (The data are for 2008, but it’s unlikely that relative wealth has changed much). Click on “Top 10” and you’ll see where the district ranks among Indiana’s almost 293 school corporations.
Most districts that have approved general-fund referenda rank near the top. Washington Township (Indianapolis) is fourth highest, Carmel is seventh, West Lafayette is 14th, Speedway is 20th, Southwest Allen is 23rd and Hamilton Southeastern is 28th.
Of the school districts where referenda failed, none ranks higher than 76th. (We’ll have more later on where the MCCSC fits in this picture).
Twenty years ago, the writer and social reformer Jonathan Kozol raged against the unfairness of property-tax-based school funding, focusing especially on Illinois, New Jersey and a few other states, in his book Savage Inequalities. In Indiana, with its mix of state and local school funding, there were inequalities, but they weren’t savage. The shift to state support for school general funds in 2009 theoretically should have made the system even fairer than it was.
Instead, shortfalls and cuts in state school funding, combined with the referendum option for districts that can afford it, are pushing Indiana toward a two-tiered system. The losers won’t be schools that lack resources, but the kids who attend those schools.