School legislation grew from chat at county fair

This is how lawmaking is supposed to work. It starts with a friendly talk with a constituent at the county fair and moves on to legislation given a positive reception in a Senate committee. If things go the way they should, it will end up with a new law that provides modest but important help for public schools.

Senate Bill 30 would require the Indiana Department of Education to report to school districts twice a year on the number of local students receiving tuition vouchers and the private schools they attend. Introduced by Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, it’s scheduled for consideration today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

The idea was hatched last summer, when Koch ran into Laura Hammack, the newly appointed superintendent of the Brown County School Corp., at the school district’s popcorn booth at the Brown County Fair in Nashville.

“It was like 8,000 degrees outside and we were covered in popcorn grease,” Hammack recalled.

Koch asked about school issues, and Hammack said she was concerned the district was losing students and, as a result, losing state funding.

“The outgoing superintendent had shared that he expected us to be down about 40 students,” Hammack said. “That would have been a big hit, but in reality we were down 100 students last fall compared to the prior year. That generates a loss of just over a half million dollars to our general fund.”

What frustrated Hammack was that she had no way to know where the students were going or why. Some left for private schools, helped by the state’s voucher programs, which provides tuition assistance for low- and middle-income families. The education department, in its annual voucher reporters, tells how many local students receive vouchers but doesn’t track where they go.

The voucher report for 2015-16 says 25 Brown County students received vouchers. There are no private schools in Brown County that accept vouchers, so the students presumably attend religious schools in Bloomington or Columbus.

There are also no charter schools in Brown County, but Hammack believes the district may lose some students to public schools in neighboring counties. Also, a number of families in the county home-school their children.

“The majority of folks in Brown County work outside the county,” she said, “and some of them are taking their children with them and picking them up after school.”

Losing over $500,000 is a big deal for a small school corporation that receives only about $10 million in base operating funds from the state. Because the departing students are spread across schools and grade levels, the district can’t cut staff and services without affecting students.

Hammack believes knowing more about where students are going will help Brown County assess its programs and services and give students more reasons to stay.

“We feel like we offer world-class opportunities in this rural setting,” she said. “However, we’re continually wanting to improve. Having this information will be very, very helpful to us.”

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