School funding formula takes complex path to simpler focus

If you followed the legislature’s recent school funding debate, you may have noticed that Indiana will be allocating money to schools based in part on the number of students who receive food stamps or welfare benefits or who are in foster case.

That’s the latest revision of the Complexity Index, the part of the school funding formula that gives more money to schools facing bigger challenges. It’s a change from the way Indiana has distributed the money in the past, but not as big a change as it might appear.

Here’s the story.

A complexity story

Indiana’s Complexity Index dates from 1993 – it was originally called the At-Risk Index – and it has unquestionably been a good thing. An attempt to level the playing field by offering more resources to needy schools, it’s the reason Indiana gets credit for a funding system that’s fairer than most.

The index has been revised several times, but in recent years it was based on the percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. Students qualify for free lunches if their family income is no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level; they qualify for reduced-price lunches if income is no more than 185 percent of the poverty level.

But some lawmakers grew uncomfortable with using the federal lunch program to calculate the index. They were concerned that families couldn’t be made to show proof of income to qualify. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study found significant error rates in the program.

“There’s very little verification of who is eligible,” Sen. Luke Kenley, the chief Senate budget writer, told Franklin College’s Statehouse File. “And in recent years the number of kids on free and reduced lunch have been going up dramatically.”

So the legislature initially voted to shift the basis of the Complexity Index to the number of students who participate in the state’s free textbook program, effective this year.

Hoosier students qualify for free textbooks if they meet the income guidelines for free or reduced-price school lunch. Unlike the lunch program, however, the state-funded textbook program could be subject to extensive audits. Families could be required to prove they qualified.

But an unexpected issue arose, thanks to a change in the federal lunch program.

Community Eligibility

Starting last fall, high-poverty schools in Indiana could participate in the lunch program through Community Eligibility, which means all students in the school get free lunch, regardless of family income. The idea is that it’s less costly, more efficient and fairer than tracking who qualifies and who doesn’t.

Indianapolis Public Schools implemented Community Eligibility in all of its schools, and 13 other districts adopted the approach in some schools. Nineteen charter schools also participate. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading