[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: School funding varies widely (8/30/2010)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Start Date: 8/30/2010 All Day
End Date: 8/30/2010

This is the second in a series of three columns on K-12 education. Last week, I wrote about the history and status of school funding. Some readers may have been surprised to learn that public schools still receive the lion's share of local property tax revenue; in Floyd County, it's 57 percent.

K-12 schools also receive almost half of the state budget. How that funding is distributed is the subject of today's column. Every school corporation and charter school receives a different amount, depending on various factors, and the amounts vary widely.

There are 293 school corporations and 56 charter schools (including one virtual charter school) in Indiana. Traditional public schools and charter schools (a different type of public school) receive funding based on the same formula, with a few exceptions that favor traditional public schools.

The median amount of state funding this year is $6,194 per student, but funding varies widely, from a high of $13,878 (Prairie Township Schools, a 37-student corporation in LaPorte that doesn't actually operate any schools or employ any teachers, instead contracting with another corporation) to a low of $4,666 (International School of Columbus, a charter).

The New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation is receiving $5,991 per student; its rank out of all 349 corporations and charters is 225. The Clarksville Community School Corporation is receiving $6,901 per student ($910 more than New Albany-Floyd); its rank is 72. Its funding is the highest among school corporations and charters in Floyd and Clark counties.

Greater Clark County Schools, which includes Jeffersonville, Charlestown and New Washington schools, is receiving $6,195; its rank is 174. West Clark Community Schools, which includes Silver Creek, Borden and Henryville schools, is receiving $5,592 per student; its rank is 312. Community Montessori School - a charter in Floyd County - is receiving the least funding of any public school in the two counties: $5,505. At 327, it ranks near the bottom. (Another charter, Rock Creek Community Academy in Clark County, will start operating this fall but will not receive any state funding until next year.)

The differences in funding among schools in Floyd and Clark counties are relatively minor. New Albany-Floyd and Greater Clark are among the largest school corporations in the state (15th and 19th, respectively, based on 2008-2009 enrollment). New Albany-Floyd is receiving $204 less per student than Greater Clark, but it is receiving $3,479 less per child than the Gary Community School Corporation, which, as the 13th largest school corporation in the state, is comparable in size. Looked at another way, New Albany-Floyd is required to educate almost 1.6 children for the same amount of money it takes Gary to educate one child.

Why the differences? Indiana allocates state funding for schools based on a complex formula. It takes a 10-page flow chart to illustrate how the formula works. I'll try to simplify it.

The legislature establishes a minimum per-student funding level ($4,550 this year). Additional funding is provided based on the percentage of students who were eligible the previous year for free or reduced-price lunches - the higher the percentage, the greater the funding.

Funding is further increased by a number of grants. For example, schools are receiving an additional $900 this year for every academic honors diploma they awarded last year. They also receive more money based on special education and vocational enrollment. Another grant program is aimed at reducing class sizes in primary grades. Other grants favor some schools over others based on past funding or size, or both.

Last year, a legislative study committee started a two-year study of the funding formula. The Interim Study Committee on School Funding Formula will continue its work this summer; let me know if you would like to be informed of the committee's activities.

School funding can be a scary topic; there's even talk of ghosts - ghost students, that is. The funding formula provides for schools to continue to receive funding for students who are no longer enrolled - a so-called "deghoster." Until this year, the formula phased out funding over five years; now it's three.

In the first year after a student leaves, a school corporation receives two-thirds of the funding for the former student and then one-third the next year. It's referred to as a three-year deghoster, but I always find it more useful to think of it as a two-year phase-out, because there is no funding in the third year after the student leaves. The old formula included a five-year deghoster, which left school corporations receiving 80 percent of funding in the first year after a student left, 60 percent the second year and so forth, until the funding was eliminated in the fifth year.

Looked at a different way, the five-year deghoster provided two years of complete funding for every ghost student, and the new three-year deghoster provides one year of complete funding. I arrived at this by adding the percentages under each formula: 80 + 60 + 40 + 20 = 200 (old formula); 67 + 33 = 100 (new formula).

The new deghoster represents a reasonable balance. Schools have many fixed costs that take time to reduce or eliminate. The enrollment numbers used to calculate funding are fixed for the year based on a count on a certain date in September. Unlike private and charter schools, traditional public schools are required to educate every child who shows up during a school year, and they don't receive any additional funding when more kids enroll.

When discussing school funding, it's not enough to consider only percentage increases or decreases. An honest conversation about school funding must include a discussion of the sources, distribution and uses of funding. Next week, I'll conclude with a look at current issues and ideas for improving education.