State funding lags for high-poverty schools

The state budget bill approved last month by the Indiana House continues a trend that we’ve seen for several legislative sessions: School districts that primarily serve affluent families are getting decent funding increases while high-poverty school districts are losing out.

But the story is more complicated than a simple tale of taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It also touches on the innate difficulty of coming up with an accurate and reliable measure of student poverty. For some districts, another factor in play is the current atmosphere for immigrant families.

For over 20 years, Indiana has used a school funding device called the Complexity Index to direct more money to high-poverty schools, which face more complex challenges in educating students. The House budget reduces Complexity Index funding by 15 percent, or $136 million.

The result: High-poverty school districts, those that rely for extra funding on the Complexity Index, could face financial challenges in the two-year period covered by the budget. The legislation is now being considered by the Senate, which could make changes in the House-approved school funding formula.

According to data from Libby Cierzniak, an attorney who represents Indianapolis and Hammond schools at the Statehouse, average per-pupil funding would increase three times as much for the state’s 50 lowest-poverty school districts as for the 50 highest-poverty districts under the House budget. Lawmakers could tweak the formula to make the results more equitable, but so far, they haven’t.

“High-poverty school districts, compared to low-poverty school districts, would take the biggest losses,” Cierzniak said.

Why does Complexity Index funding decrease? The short answer, Cierzniak said, is that, according to the poverty measure used in the index, there are fewer poor children in the state than two years ago.

Indiana traditionally used the percentage of students who signed up for free or reduced-price school lunch to calculate the index. But over the past two years, it has shifted to using the percentage of students who are directly certified by the state as eligible for the lunch program. Those are students who receive food stamps or TANF benefits or who are in foster care.

Legislators believed that was a better indicator of poverty than the number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, because families don’t have to verify their income for the lunch program.

And food stamp enrollment in Indiana has dropped by 18.7 percent in the two years since the last state budget was approved, Cierzniak said. That’s probably the primary reason schools would receive less money under the Complexity Index.

Whether student poverty has truly declined that much is open to debate, however. The economy has continued to improve, but challenges facing high-poverty schools probably haven’t lessened. Statewide free and reduced-lunch rates have stayed about the same for the past two years. The food stamp program, the primary driver of direct certification, is notoriously subject to “churn,” with families cycling in and out of the program when they move or fail to show every six months that they still qualify.

In some school districts, the Trump administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws may be causing low-income immigrant families to avoid applying for food stamps. Anyone lacking the right documents would worry that registering with the government could put them on a list for deportation.

There are rumors that immigrants are leaving the food-stamp program across the country, the Washington Post reports. While undocumented immigrants are not eligible for food stamps, their American-born children could be eligible.

Northern Indiana’s Goshen Community Schools, where over half the students are Hispanic, will see its Complexity Index funding decline by over half — $3.6 million – under the House-approved budget. Jerry Hawkins, the district’s finance director, has suggested reluctance to sign up for food stamps may be a cause.

“In today’s climate … how do you convince a parent who might be undocumented to sign up for direct certification?” he said at a local legislative forum, the Goshen News reported.

Goshen’s per-pupil funding would be little more than that of some of the state’s wealthiest districts under the House budget, even though 64 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Other districts with large Hispanic enrollments also see big hits to their Complexity Index funding.

Meanwhile, the budget provides a paltry $300 in additional per-pupil funding next year for schools to help students whose first language is not English. High-poverty school districts serving large numbers of English language learners – and the number is significant and growing – could face a double challenge.

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