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. Continue reading

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Lots of B’s for Indiana school districts

The Indiana Department of Education released A-to-F grades for school districts this week, and 60 percent of districts were awarded B’s under the new grading system.

That’s probably about right. All the evidence suggests most public school districts in Indiana are doing a pretty good job. But if we’re honest, most could probably all do a little better.

School district A banner

Some school districts may need to change their branding as a result of new district grades.

One of the most consistent findings of the annual Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools is that people are more likely to give their local schools a B than any other grade. And those are the schools that the public knows best.

The whole idea of labeling schools and school districts with letter grades still makes little sense, however. It’s quite likely that school districts that received A’s, for the most part, are no “better” than those that got B’s. And those that got C’s are no worse.

Continue reading

School grades still reflect student demographics

It was true five years ago and it’s still true today. The grades that Indiana assigns to schools say more about the students the schools serve than how effective the schools are.

A change in the grading system this year was a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step to make the grades fair or credible. Schools that get high grades are still more likely than not to serve few students from poor families. Those that get low grades are almost certainly high-poverty schools.

The idea that a simple A-to-F grade would provide meaningful information about something as complex as a public school was always silly. But basing grades primarily on standardized test scores, as Indiana has done, means the grades will be not only misleading but harmful to schools that struggle to improve.

Indiana changed its formula this year so that grades would be based equally on test-score performance and test-score growth. The result seems to be that a few affluent schools got Bs rather than As, and some schools with low tests scores may have bumped their grades to a D or a C via growth. But the overall trend still holds.

One way to look at this is divide Indiana’s public and charter schools into quartiles by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute did this in 2012 to show the tight fit between school grades and poverty. I did the same thing in 2013 and 2014. Continue reading