[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: A formula for positive change (3/16/2011)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Start Date: 3/16/2011 All Day
End Date: 3/16/2011

Last Friday, I participated in a town hall meeting at Floyds Knobs Elementary School. Several hundred people attended the meeting, which was organized by a parent group. I was on a panel with Republican state Sen. Ron Grooms of Jeffersonville, Republican state Rep. Rhonda Rhoads of Corydon and Indiana Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Dale Chu.

Many of the questions from the audience were about vouchers and charter schools. Both are important topics, but one issue that continues to receive scant attention is the formula that determines how state funding for K-12 education is distributed to schools. I shared some information about school funding, and many in attendance were surprised by the figures.

The state budget proposed by House Republicans would maintain funding for K-12 education at the current level of $6.25 billion, which is about half of Indiana's entire budget. Not a penny would be cut.

The funding formula has been manipulated for years. The proposed budget would make major changes to the formula, resulting in some schools receiving more money and some receiving less. The pot of money would stay the same, but how it gets dished out would change.

Writing in this space two weeks ago, I cited the Gary Community School Corporation as an example of a district that would receive much less funding under the proposed formula. The Gary schools are receiving $9,525 per student in state funding this year, compared to $6,043 for the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation.

Total funding for Gary is $94 million, compared to $67 million for New Albany-Floyd County. By the second year of the budget, Gary's total funding would be reduced by $20 million to $74 million. Over the same period, New Albany-Floyd County's total funding would be reduced by about $1 million because of an anticipated loss of approximately 260 students. Of course, if there are more students, the corporation will receive more money. Regardless, per-student funding would actually increase slightly to $6,066, while Gary's would drop to $8,166 - still a $2,100 advantage over New Albany-Floyd County.

In other words, Gary is currently receiving $27 million more than New Albany-Floyd County, and under the proposed formula, in the second year of the budget, it would still receive $9 million more. One important fact puts the discrepancy in further perspective: New Albany-Floyd County currently has about 1,200 more students than Gary, and in two years, the gap is expected to increase to about 1,700.

So why does Gary get so much more than New Albany-Floyd County? Politics. Pure and simple. And it's time to put an end to it. To ease the impact on schools that have been receiving more than their fair share, the proposed formula would create a nine-year transition.

I don't mean to pick on Gary. It's a good example, but there are plenty of others, including some closer to home. The lead voice for Indiana House Democrats on education issues is Rep. Terry Goodin of Austin. Two years ago, in the 2009 budget, he came up with yet another way to manipulate the formula to redirect money to politically favored schools - a small school grant. This year, because of the grant, $15.6 million is being redistributed statewide from larger districts to smaller districts.

One of the recipients is the Crothersville Community Schools, a district with two schools - an elementary school and a combined junior-senior high school - and a total of 533 students. Crothersville is in Jackson County, about 35 miles north of New Albany. Because of the small school grant, Crothersville is receiving an extra $97,249 this year. If it weren't for the small school grant, that money would be going to other schools, including those in Floyd County.

Crothersville may argue it needs the money because it has high overhead expenses relative to its size. Those overhead expenses include a $133,176 salary for its superintendent, who happens to be Rep. Goodin.

Crothersville is receiving $7,206 per student this year - $1,163 more than Floyd County. Under the proposed funding formula, Crothersville's per-student funding would be reduced to $6,717 next year and $6,565 in 2013 - still $500 more than New Albany-Floyd County's funding.

Crothersville Elementary School has an enrollment of 264 students. Only three of those students are non-English speakers. Fifty-seven of the 285 students at Fairmont Elementary School in New Albany are non-English speakers. Fifty-two percent of the students at Crothersville Elementary are on free or reduced-price lunch, while at Fairmont the number is 84 percent. Why should money be taken from Fairmont and given to Crothersville?

Not every small school corporation benefits from the small school grant. The Lanesville Community School Corporation, with 644 students, isn't receiving any money under the grant. Current per-student funding is $5,507, and it would increase slightly to $5,529 in the second year of the budget.

As the walkout by House Democrats entered its fourth week yesterday, the time for debating education issues continued to dwindle. It's a shame, because there are a lot of important issues that deserve full, public debate.

There can be no debate, however, over the need to get politics out of the school funding formula.