School Finance

State budget proposal shifts aid toward wealthy schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students at the Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Indiana’s proposed two-year budget, released today, would add more money for education than in recent years, widely boosting per-student basic aid.

But changes in the funding system appear likely to funnel most of those extra dollars to wealthy suburban school districts, while some of the poorest schools could actually get less money.

Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, would see a 6 percent reduction in total state tuition aid by 2017 despite being one of the state’s poorest districts, with more than 75 percent of children coming from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Some of the state’s other poorest cities also would face basic tuition aid cuts: 19 percent for Gary, 10.5 percent for East Chicago and 3 percent for Hammond by 2017.

Meanwhile, the two wealthiest school districts in the state for family income — Zionsville and Carmel — would see large increases in total state basic tuition aid: 10.6 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively, over the two-year budget period. Neither district has more than 10 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

At the same time, the proposed budget also would provide more money for public charter schools and private schools receiving publicly funded tuition vouchers.

“I’m happy to see some school corporations are getting more, but I’m disappointed IPS might potentially be on the losing end in terms of less funding,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said.

Besides IPS, no other Marion County school districts would see their basic state tuition aid go down, and several see strong gains.

Beech Grove would get the biggest boost in Marion County, with a 10.4 percent increase in total tuition support by 2017. Franklin Township would get 7.6 percent more, and Perry and Washington townships each would get a 7.4 percent increase.

Under the budget plan, crafted by House Republicans, K-12 schools statewide would see a 4.7 percent increase over two years through 2017. The added money for schools was much more than in the last two-year budget, which raised school aid by about 3 percent through this year. Overall, tuition support for public schools will rise by $469 million to a record high of $6.9 billion, up from the all-time high in the last budget of $6.7 billion in 2015.

Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, the chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, hailed the school funding plan as making progress to improve the funding system after years of complaints about how school dollars are divided up.

Extra money added to the basic tuition amount for each student — called the “foundation” level — benefits all schools, Brown said.

“I feel very comfortable that it substantially increases the foundation,” Brown said. “As we look at money following the child, it does an adequate and equal job of funding of the services they need within the budget limitations that we do have.”

The proposal would make some big changes to the way schools are funded, especially for how extra aid for poor and disabled children is paid out.

For example, extra dollars to help poor children, who often start school behind their peers on skills such as reading and math, would be calculated based on the number of students who come from families poor enough to qualify for free lunch. In the past, that factor also counted in children who are not as poor but still qualify for a reduced-price lunch based on family income.

That change appeared to translate to less state aid for several high-poverty districts, according to estimated aid numbers provided by House Republicans.

On the other hand, districts with large numbers of students who are severely disabled could get more aid. A 5.4 percent increase, Brown said, was the first hike in aid for disabled children in 20 years. That could help some high-poverty districts, which also tend to have larger numbers of students with disabilities.

For IPS, at least, there would be far more dollars lost than gained under the proposed new formula. The changes in the poverty calculation — called a “complexity index” — alone could result in a 14 percent drop in poverty aid to the district, for example.

Going backwards on total state aid for any district, much less those with the most poor children, is tough in a time when education dollars are already tight, Ferebee said

“It’s disappointing that anybody loses funding,” he said. “We all know education is not funded at the level we’d like it to be.”

Since Republican leaders said earlier this year that reworking the school funding formula would be a priority, suburban and city school leaders have worked behind the scenes to try to make their cases for more money — or at least not to lose ground.

Wealthy, mostly suburban schools have argued Indiana’s school funding formula is unfair because they receive the smallest amount of state aid — in some cases not enough to provide basics, they have argued — but are producing the state’s best test scores, graduation rates and other student performance results.

But the state’s poorest school districts — many of them centered in Indiana’ most economically distressed cities — argued the extra money they receive is desperately needed to educate very poor children who often come to school far behind their peers.

After Republicans took control of both houses of the Indiana General Assembly in 2010, they pushed for more equal school 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. The new budget would accelerate that timeline to complete the process early, by 2016.

That gap, which for 2015 is estimated to be a $2,787 difference between the districts the formula deems poorest and wealthiest, would be dramatically cut to just $1,618 more for the poorest district over the wealthiest.

Other school funding changes the proposed budget would make include:

  • Kindergarten students would each count as one student in the formula. Previously, they counted for one-half of a student but received some extra aid through grants. Ferebee said he was pleased by this move, saying lawmakers deserved credit for making it a priority.
  • About $40 million would be set aside for grants to help charter schools with building, transportation and other non-classroom costs.
  • A cap of $4,800 for elementary school students who use publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition would be removed. Children could receive up to 90 percent of their home school district’s state tuition aid amount. The estimated additional cost to the state for the change is about $3.5 million.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.