Divide between wealthy and poor schools at core of funding debate

Wealthy, mostly suburban schools have a beef with Indiana’s school funding formula: their superintendents say they are producing the state’s best test scores and graduation rates but getting the smallest amount of state aid.

In some cases, the amount of money they get is so small they can’t provide basics, like gym and music teachers in every school or cost-of-living pay raises for teachers, they say.

But the state’s poorest school districts — many of them centered in the bleakest parts of Indiana’ most distressed cities — have complaints, too.

Those school leaders argue they have a much greater challenge: educating children who often come to school far behind and deeply troubled by the challenges of poverty their families face. The cost to help those children overcome barriers to succeed in school is so great, they say, that their schools need every extra penny they receive.

As the budget-makers in the Indiana legislature prepare to wade into these difficult issues this month — Republican leaders have made creating a fairer school funding system a centerpiece of their legislative agenda this year — perhaps the biggest challenge is that both the suburbs and the cities have compelling arguments.

Lawmakers have heard them, said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

“There has been a growing opinion of Hoosiers of all stripes that there is something wrong with school funding, and it’s not just more money,” Bosma said. “Some people feel we are proposing a really big change. I would say we are proposing a really big review.”

At 5:30 p.m. tonight at the Central Library, Chalkbeat, along with the library and WFYI, will sponsor a public conversation about the possible funding changes featuring Bosma, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and Chris Himsel, superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools in suburban Fort Wayne.

Since Republicans took control of both houses of the Indiana General Assembly in 2010, they have been pushing for more equal funding. A plan to adjust the state’s basic per-student aid levels is about halfway through a seven-year process designed to narrow the gap between the high poverty districts, which receive the most aid, and the wealthiest districts, which receive the least.

What does the divide look like?

For IPS, the highest-funded district in Central Indiana, and Carmel, the lowest funded, the difference now is about $2,900 more per student for IPS.

That gap is intentional. Districts like IPS get extra to help them support children disadvantaged by growing up with fewer educational opportunities. But they’ve had to adjust to getting less in recent years.

“We already have, on the books, a scheduled decrease in funding that we are already preparing for,” Ferebee sad. “I am somewhat perplexed by why anyone would think to propose more when we have reductions already on the books.”

But Bosma argues the gap is still too wide.

“The real question is on what are we spending the additional funds today?” he said. “If we are spending them to enhance achievement through remediation and reading and English as a second language — all the things I think are going to translate to individual child success hopefully — that’s one thing. If we are spending it on more administration or things that might not impact learning or safety, I think you get a different answer.”

But Himsel said he and the group of more than a dozen suburban superintendents he is part of that is lobbying legislators for change aren’t advocating taking money from high poverty districts. They just believe the baseline funding for districts with fewer poor children is just too low. The lowest funded districts can be raised without hurting IPS, Fort Wayne and districts like them, he said.

“Our intent is not to take anything away from any school district,” he said. “We do not want IPS to be reduced. But the disparity has gotten to the point where it no longer equitable in the opposite direction.”

Suburban districts, Himsel said, are advocating for three changes: A higher minimum amount of per-student aid, extra money added to the funding formula to offset inequities and a wider review of the funding formula by independent researchers at Indiana and Purdue universities that could lead to future adjustments in the name of fairness.

Ferebee, who came to IPS in 2013 from North Carolina, also thinks lawmakers should look at ways to increase funding for everyone, such as paying districts a full share of per-student aid for each student in full-day kindergarten, rather than the half-share schools receive now.

“It’s glaring that we don’t provide full funding for kindergarten,” he said. “I was blown away by that.”

A better challenge for the legislature than more equal funding, Ferebee said, is making education a big enough priority to spend what’s needed to be sure all kids have an equal chance.

“If we have better prioritization, we can find funding for it,” he said. “We find funding for what’s important to us. When we need money for law enforcement, we do it. When we need money for roads, we do it.”

Establishing priorities for state spending is, indeed, the hardest part of the discussion, Bosma said.

“There is a pie and it has to be divided,” he said. “You cannot multiply the pie dramatically. The pie is what it is.”

When it comes to deciding who needs what to get an education that will prepare all children for college and careers, Bosma said those needs are different, not just for every school, but for every child.

With nearly half of Indiana’s roughly 1 million schoolchildren coming from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the question of how much extra money is needed to give poor children a fair shot isn’t simple.

“I suspect,” he said, “there are about a half million answers to that question in Indiana.”

Join Chalkbeat, WFYI and the Central Library TONIGHT for a conversation about school funding. Panelists include House Speaker Brian Bosma, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and Superintendent Chris Himsel of Northwest Allen Schools near Fort Wayne.