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More schools, fewer dollars for each

More Indiana schools might mean more choices for parents, but it also means less money for each school. That's the cold, hard truth for public school officials struggling to put together 2012 budgets: Next year there will be more schools and less money.

The Indianapolis City County Council this week approved three new charter schools. That's three new schools that taxpayers statewide will support, with fewer state tuition support dollars available for their own local schools.

Charter schools seem to be the sacred cow for consolidation and efficiency proponents. How they justify the additional public expense for buildings, utility costs, administrators, transportation and more isn't clear, although many Hoosiers still believe that charter schools are privately funded.

The charter school proponents have managed to escape scrutiny by opening most of the schools in urban areas. Taxpayers in rural and suburban areas assume they aren't affected, but state revenues – not local property taxes – now cover 100 percent of school general fund costs. A growing share of their tax dollars are flowing to the new charter schools, with a smaller share going to the school down the street. Yes, there are fewer students to educate at the existing public school. But losing six students to a charter school doesn't eliminate the cost of a single teacher's salary or a bus route, nor does it allow for utility cost savings.

New Jersey charter proponents are beginning to feel some pushback from faithful charter supporters there, according to the online news service NJ Spotlight:

When the Christie administration last week announced it approved just four new charter schools out of nearly 60 applicants, it came with a message of quality over quantity from Gov. Chris Christie's top education officials.

There was no doubt that Gov. Chris Christie was hearing grumbles from his Republican base. Many of his suburban legislators either voted for or abstained on new controls on charter schools being trumpeted by Democrats.

Christie himself had long been a lightning rod for the debate over charter schools, making their expansion a centerpiece of his education platform. When his administration last spring approved 23 new schools -- by far the largest group ever -- he went into Newark to announce the news schools himself.

But even before that, resentment was growing in the suburbs about the sudden advent of the charter schools in their midst, drawing dollars from their cash-strapped districts.

Indiana taxpayers haven't caught on yet, but the New Jersey experience suggests they soon will.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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