Yes for MCCSC

Some of the first posts on this blog argued for the school funding referendum that voters in the Monroe County School Corp. district approved in 2010. Now it’s time to vote again, and the need for a yes vote is as urgent as it was six years ago.

The 2010 referendum authorized a modest increase in local property taxes to supplement the school funding MCCSC receives from the state. The authorization expires after this year. If we don’t vote to extend it, it’s likely staff will be reduced, class sizes will balloon and programs will be cut.

As I’ve written before, it’s easy for people to find a reason to vote no. We can all point to school corporation decisions that we don’t agree with. But voting down the referendum won’t hurt the school board or administrators. It will just hurt our children and grandchildren.

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No time for complacency on school funding vote

It’s tempting to think a referendum to continue funding the Monroe County Community School Corp. with a modest property-tax levy will pass this November with votes to spare – just as it did in 2010.

But that could be a mistake. This is a very different election year from the one six years ago. Contests for president and governor are on the ballot, a circumstance that will bring out more and different voters. An anti-establishment mood has swept the country, and that could hurt the MCCSC and its supporters.

Yes for MCCSC graphicAnd it’s likely that many voters will go to the polls with no idea a school funding referendum is on the ballot. The question will be at the bottom, below all the national, state and county contests. It’s important to inform education supporters that they need to vote.

So it’s good to see the school district’s supporters are treating this like a real election campaign. The pro-referendum election committee Yes for MCCSC held a kickoff rally Tuesday, complete with music, signs and talks by students, parents, teachers and officials. The group has put together an informative website. It has lined up support from Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton and others.

Importantly, the website includes a “supply closet” section that details how the referendum money will be used and a property tax calculator that shows what the impact will be on taxpayers.

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Another take on Indiana school funding fairness

There are several ways to calculate the per-pupil funding that Indiana school corporations receive from the state. Arguably the fairest and most transparent is to focus on the basic “tuition support” that’s awarded to all districts, plus the complexity index that provides more dollars to higher-needs schools.

If you take that approach, the claim by House Republicans that state funding for schools varies from $5,000 up to $9,500 per student is truly out of whack.

Per-pupil funding for the current year using only tuition support and the complexity index is included in a school funding chart posted to the Indiana Department of Education’s Learning Connections site. You can see that the lowest-funded districts – typically low-poverty schools like those in Hamilton County, which don’t benefit much from the complexity index – fall a bit short of $5,000 per pupil.

But the most generously funded districts don’t get close to what House Republicans said. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, gets $7,058 per pupil. East Chicago, at $7,526 per pupil, is the highest-funded district (though several charter schools are close).

In a post on Monday, I reported that IPS received $8,300 per pupil. That figure, from a chart generated by a legislative office, included special education funding, full-day kindergarten grants and payments for students who earn an honors diploma and those who enroll in career-education classes.

The honors diploma funding is set by the state and is the same for all schools. Career education funding is supposed to be an incentive to train students for high-demand jobs. Indiana began funding full-day kindergarten in 2011. Special education funding is based on the number of students identified with special needs, with more dollars allocated for those with more severe disabilities.

In other words, these are “below the line” calculations that should not be in play when House Republicans go about trying to “fix” the funding formula.

Most of the variability in per-pupil funding comes from the complexity index, so lawmakers could be tempted to rewrite that formula. But the index is arguably one of the things Indiana does right. This year’s school funding fairness report card from the Education Law Center in New Jersey gives Indiana an A for “funding distribution,” a measure of whether states provide more money to high-poverty schools.

Legislators need to remember that old saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

State funding for schools no guarantee of progress

Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy of the Center for American Progress, argues in a recent Education Week commentary that we should stop using local property taxes to fund schools and shift fiscal responsibility for K-12 education to the states.

Indiana’s experience suggests advocates for equitable school funding should be careful what they wish for. Relying on state revenues to fund schools may result in a simpler, fairer system. But it may also mean that schools are less likely to get the money they need.

Brown builds from the work of the U.S. Department of Education’s Commission on Equity and Excellence, of which she was a member. Its report, issued in February, concluded that efforts to improve the schools should start with equity, including equity in funding.

“States should adopt a state-based system of school financing,” she writes, “one in which states provide all nonfederal resources for education, and districts no longer have the power to raise funds from local property taxes.”

Indiana switched to state-based K-12 funding 2009 as part of a larger “property tax reform” initiative. Generally speaking, the state now pays school general fund expenses, including instruction and most salaries. Local property taxes are used to pay for buildings and transportation. (Voters can choose in a referendum to raise their own property taxes to supplement state dollars for the local school district’s general fund).

No sooner had the switch taken place than the economy hit the skids, state tax revenues nose-dived and then-Gov. Mitch Daniels cut school funding by $300 million to keep the state in the black. Schools are still suffering from that cut, Continue reading

Education panel calls for equity as path to excellence

Education policy debates have long pitted supporters of equity against advocates for excellence. A report from a congressionally chartered commission suggests we can’t have one without the other.

“For Each and Every Child,” issued last week by the federal Equity and Excellence Commission, echoes the sense of urgency of the “A Nation at Risk” manifesto that came out 30 years ago. But its primary focus is on the dramatic inequality of opportunity that characterizes America’s schools.

“With the highest poverty rate in the developed world, amplified by the inadequate education received by many children in low-income schools, the United States is threatening its own future,” it says.

The 52-page report centers its recommendations on five themes: developing fairer approaches to school funding; training and retaining good teachers; expanding pre-school; mitigating the effects of poverty; and tying governance and accountability systems to the goals of equity and excellence.

The commission that produced the report was packed with influential figures: scholars, union and civil rights leaders and others. And the members seem determined not to let the report gather dust. They’re out doing media interviews and writing op-eds about their findings and recommendations.

Yet implementing their ideas will likely be a struggle. Continue reading

Legislative roundup: Pre-K, vouchers, Common Core and more

The 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly is in full swing. Here’s a look at some education issues, with help from Terry Spradlin, director for education policy of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Pre-kindergarten

Pressure has been building to address the fact that Indiana is one of only 11 states that don’t fund pre-K programs. Legislative leaders seem to be on board but Gov. Mike Pence has been lukewarm on the issue. He barely mentioned it in his State of the State address – he again cited the Busy Bees preschool in Columbus as a model, even though Bartholomew County voters rejected a property-tax referendum to fund the program, making it unaffordable for many families.

The bill to watch appears to be House Bill 1004, which establishes a pilot program of state-funded vouchers allowing families to send their children to preschools that earn a Level 3 or 4 in the state’s Pathways to Quality voluntary rating system. Lawmakers have suggested funding the pilot with $7 million. If it’s a full-day program, that would serve about 1,000 of the 81,150 Indiana 3- and 4-year-olds in low-income families.

Many of us would prefer state support for public schools to provide free, high-quality preschool for needy children. But given political reality, that’s probably not in the cards.

The state is looking at pre-K after finally implementing full-day kindergarten. Spradlin noted that Gov. Frank O’Bannon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed made a big push for FDK in 1999. The first grants were awarded to schools in 2001, but it wasn’t until last year that the program was fully funded.

“Hopefully it will not take 13 years” to fund pre-K, Spradlin said. “The evidence is there – 39 other states are doing it and we know from those states what’s working and what’s not working.”

Vouchers

Indiana has one of the most expansive private-school voucher programs in the country, but Pence and House Republican leaders want to be even more liberal in directing taxpayer dollars to private schools. Continue reading

‘Cash for test scores’ scheme would favor the usual suspects

Indiana Sen. Brandt Hershman’s plan to reward school districts for high test scores looks a lot like a scheme to steal from the poor and give to the rich — or, more accurately, to steal a little from almost everyone and give it to the rich.

Hershman, a Republican who represents a rural district near Lafayette, is proposing to give extra money to public school corporations at which more than 85 percent of students pass both the math and English ISTEP-Plus exams. The bonus would be $500 for each student who passes.

That’s arguably “giving to the rich” because, predictably, the school districts that would qualify are districts that serve few poor students. Most are suburban districts; many are located in the “doughnut counties” that surround Indianapolis.

Based on last year’s test scores, 15 school corporations would get the money. At only a couple of them do more than a quarter of students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Statewide, nearly half of all students qualify for lunch subsidies.

It’s estimated the program would cost $17 million a year. The biggest chunk would likely to go Carmel-Clay schools, one of the state’s wealthiest districts, where fewer than 10 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Hershman doesn’t identify a funding source, saying only that, if the economy improves, “there will be some new money available for K through 12,” Continue reading