School funding ‘fix’ would help some, hurt others

The last time Indiana House Republicans vowed to fix the state’s school funding formula, some districts saw double-digit cuts in their budgets. Now they’re at it again, and the results are likely to be similar.

House Speaker Brian Bosma announced the latest plan last week, putting school funding equalization at the top of the caucus’s 2015 legislative agenda. “I have had many teachers across Indiana tell me that the distribution of school funds is unfair,” he said in a news release. “We will fix this.”

It’s true there are discrepancies in Indiana school funding. Generally speaking, high-poverty school districts get more money per student; and growing, affluent districts get less. But those differences exist for a reason. And the GOP “fix” is almost certain to hurt some of Indiana’s most vulnerable students.

This is Indiana, after all, and we can probably rule out any kind of tax increase in 2015 to raise funding for schools across the board. That means the only way Republicans can boost funding for the typically low-poverty schools in their legislative districts will be to take from high-poverty districts.

As the civil rights leader Julian Bond said last week in a lecture at Indiana University, “In America, the education dollar follows the white child.”

House Republicans also exaggerated the size of the funding differences, telling reporters state funding for school districts varies from $9,500 to $5,000. It once varied about that much, but no longer.

According to school funding figures from the state legislature, the most generously funded public school districts are Gary Public Schools, which get about $8,400 per student, and Indianapolis Public Schools, which get $8,300. The lowest-funded districts get over $5,400 per students.

Keep in mind that these figures include only the state dollars that pay for general-fund expenses like teacher and administrator salaries. Building and transportation costs are paid from local property taxes. Wealthy districts can tap the local tax base to provide modern facilities and equipment for their students, while poor districts may struggle to keep the buildings together and the buses running.

Indiana’s school funding formula provides each school district with a basic foundation grant. Beyond that, districts get additional money based on a “complexity index” that funnels more dollars to districts with higher poverty, more non-English speakers and other needs. That’s the primary reason IPS and Gary get more funding per pupil than schools in, say, Carmel and Fishers.

The formula also makes allowances for special-needs students, gifted education and workforce training.

Before 2010, Democrats controlled the House and they were able to protect urban schools from losing money even as they lost students. That arguably created an imbalance. But Republicans reversed the trend once they had control of the Senate, House and governor’s office. The 2011 state budget cut funding for Gary schools by more than 20 percent and for IPS and some other districts by more than 10 percent. Cuts continued in the 2013 budget, but they were smaller.

It makes sense that education costs more in a school district with many poor students, special-needs students and English language learners. It also costs less to pay teacher salaries in a growing suburban school district than in an urban or rural district with declining enrollment. That’s because growing districts are always adding new teachers, who are paid less money, while districts like IPS and Gary, which have been losing students, are top-heavy with experienced teachers at the high end of the salary scale.

This could eventually change, thanks to the 2011 state law that limits how much experience can be weighted in calculating teacher raises. But for now, experienced teachers are paid more.

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2 thoughts on “School funding ‘fix’ would help some, hurt others

  1. Pingback: Another take on Indiana school funding fairness | School Matters

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