Urban schools losing students to transfers

Only 56 percent of school-age children who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools district attend IPS schools. The rest attend charter schools, receive vouchers to attend private schools or transfer to public schools in other districts.

In Gary, it’s even worse. Only 39 percent of school-age children who live in the district attend Gary Community Schools. More Gary students attend charter schools than local public schools.

These figures include only students whose schooling is funded by the state, not those who attend private schools and don’t receive vouchers. They are among the findings of the first Public Corporation Transfer Report, a revealing report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education..

And when students transfer out of their local school district to attend other public schools, charter schools or private schools, it matters. Districts lose funding when they lose students, and declining enrollment is one reason IPS, Gary and other urban districts have struggled financially.

In those cities, the growth of charter schools and state-funded vouchers for private schools have been driving the decline in enrollment. But elsewhere, a bigger factor has been the de facto inter-district open enrollment that was created when the state took responsibility for funding school operations several years ago. In some areas, students transfer so much that district boundaries seem almost meaningless.

The transfer report came about thanks to a meeting at the Brown County Fair of Laura Hammack, superintendent of Brown County Schools, and state Sen. Eric Koch, who represents the county. Hammack lamented that there was no way to know where Brown County students were going when they didn’t enroll in local public schools. Koch sponsored legislation to require the Department of Education to track and report where students enroll. The bill passed, leading to the report.

It turns out that about 90 percent of students who live in Brown County attend Brown County Schools. Of those who don’t, most attend public schools in neighboring districts, chiefly the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district in Johnson County. Losing 10 percent of a district’s students is fairly typical, but it’s a big deal to a small district like Brown County –a $1 million-plus hit to the budget.

Around the state, the districts losing the most students tend to be urban districts that serve low-income areas, but there are interesting variations in the data.

  • In Indianapolis, an active charter-school sector is a big part of the picture. Some 26,215 students attend IPS schools while 17,156 students transfer to other districts, attend charter schools or attend private schools with vouchers. Of the transfers, 60 percent attend charter schools.
  • In Gary, 4,681 students attend Gary Community Schools while 6,776 local students enroll elsewhere. Three-quarters of Gary students who transfer-out enroll in charter schools.
  • Fort Wayne paints a very different picture. Over 80 percent of students who live in the urban district attend Fort Wayne Community Schools. Of those who don’t, 70 percent attend religious schools using vouchers. Relatively few attend charter schools or out-of-district public schools.

Indiana school districts rely on local property taxes to fund buildings and transportation. But the state took responsibility for school general funds, which pay for salaries and most operating expenses, in 2009. When that happened, most schools began to welcome students from other districts, if they had room. Under the state’s “money follows the child” funding system, it meant more revenue.

Former Gov. Mitch Daniels argued that public school-district choice would make schools better, because districts would compete for students and the dollars that would follow them. But the evidence that parents choose schools for “quality” is scant.

Convenience is probably a chief reason for transferring. It’s also possible that middle-class white parents are transferring their children out of high-poverty, nonwhite districts, thus exacerbating school segregation. We don’t know if that’s happening, because the state transfer report doesn’t include demographics.

The report does show that districts in mid-sized industrial cities like Muncie, Anderson, Marion, Kokomo and South Bend tend to be losing a lot of students to transfers. And some of the districts that are gaining the most students via transfers are rural/suburban districts located on the outskirts of those cities.

For more detail, see the Public Corporation Transfer Report, an Excel file that can be downloaded from the Indiana Department of Education’s data page. The first tab, labeled District Spotlight, includes detailed reports on how many students are leaving and entering each school district. The last tab, School Choice Transfers, details where the transfer students are going.

Here is a spreadsheet showing the percentage of students who attend local schools, ranked from lowest to highest. It shows that urban districts are losing a lot of students, but so are some small rural districts that may not offer the same amenities as neighboring districts.

2 thoughts on “Urban schools losing students to transfers

  1. Of course we still don’t know where all students are going. The report only tracks state funded students, not home school or non-voucher private school students.

  2. Now I’m really curious as to whether the transfer process is actually exacerbating school segregation and what that might mean for the experiences of people in different schools. How are these policy decisions affecting the culture and climate of Indiana schools?

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