‘Cash for test scores’ scheme would favor the usual suspects

Indiana Sen. Brandt Hershman’s plan to reward school districts for high test scores looks a lot like a scheme to steal from the poor and give to the rich — or, more accurately, to steal a little from almost everyone and give it to the rich.

Hershman, a Republican who represents a rural district near Lafayette, is proposing to give extra money to public school corporations at which more than 85 percent of students pass both the math and English ISTEP-Plus exams. The bonus would be $500 for each student who passes.

That’s arguably “giving to the rich” because, predictably, the school districts that would qualify are districts that serve few poor students. Most are suburban districts; many are located in the “doughnut counties” that surround Indianapolis.

Based on last year’s test scores, 15 school corporations would get the money. At only a couple of them do more than a quarter of students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Statewide, nearly half of all students qualify for lunch subsidies.

It’s estimated the program would cost $17 million a year. The biggest chunk would likely to go Carmel-Clay schools, one of the state’s wealthiest districts, where fewer than 10 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Hershman doesn’t identify a funding source, saying only that, if the economy improves, “there will be some new money available for K through 12,” according to a story from the Franklin College Statehouse bureau. In other words, the bonus money is likely to come from whatever legislators allocate to public schools. That’s a big pie, of course, and $17 million isn’t much of a slice. Still, it seems likely the program would get money that would otherwise be divided among public schools.

Indiana has historically had a “progressive” system of funding K-12 education, in which high-poverty school districts spend more, per student, than low-poverty districts. The Education Law Center at Rutgers University, in a “report card” issued this month, rated Indiana No. 7 among the states for the fairness of its funding system.

But the Rutgers report relies on data that go only through 2009, before Republicans took control of the Indiana legislature and approved a state budget that sliced funding for high-poverty school districts like Gary and Indianapolis. If the report used today’s data, Indiana’s funding formula would still look progressive, but less so. Hershman’s plan would be another step away from fairness.

The bigger issue with the proposal, however, is that there are already plenty of incentives for schools to focus on students’ test scores, ranging from the threat of state takeover to the fact that teachers are unlikely to get raises and may even lose their jobs if students’ test scores don’t keep up.

If Hershman really thinks school corporations need another carrot to get serious about tests, he ought to focus on improvement, not just scores. For example, if the state rewarded schools whose students do the best on Indiana’s growth model, which measures year-to-year improvement in test scores, at least all districts might have a chance to share in the money.

As an aside, it seems to have been forgotten that Indiana once had a program, called performance-based awards, that gave extra money to school districts for improving their test scores and attendance rates. It was part of A-Plus, the big package of educational changes that Gov. Robert Orr and state Superintendent H. Dean Evans pushed through the legislature in 1987. Evans got lawmakers to fund the program for a couple of budget cycles, but it eventually fell by the wayside.

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