Fort Wayne Community Schools has for years absorbed the sting of declining state funding for disadvantaged students.
Known as complexity funding, it is based on students and families in each district receiving welfare or food stamps or caring for foster children. The theory is students from less-advantaged homes require more resources to educate.
At FWCS, these dollars have fallen an average of about 5% annually from $1,707 per student in 2013-14 to $1,068 in 2020-21, Chief Financial Officer Kathy Friend said.
This forces decisions about whether to reduce services or to use other funding to maintain programming, she said.
About 66% of FWCS' student body is considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data. The district has about 28,500 students.
District leaders have repeatedly shared their concerns about declining complexity funding with lawmakers, and now they hope a recent third-party study about the issue reinforces their message.
“You can say, 'Look, Fort Wayne isn't making this up,'” Friend said in an interview last week. “All of the urban school districts are experiencing the same thing.”
Indianapolis firm Policy Analytics studied the state's complexity funding on behalf of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, an organization representing 35 public school districts that collectively serve about 31% of the state's public school students.
Along with FWCS, members include Indianapolis Public Schools, Muncie Community Schools, MSD Wayne Township and South Bend Community School Corp.
FWCS is welcoming Indiana Urban Schools Association Executive Director David Marcotte to share the findings at the 6 p.m. Feb. 22 school board meeting.
Friend said the presentation could also help parents' understanding.
“A lot of our parents want to advocate on our behalf, but they don't know how,” Friend said. “When we want to advocate for better funding for schools, we can say, 'Look, this part of the formula is important.'”
Complexity funding is distributed to districts along with foundation funding – dollars that should cover the basic level of education for students, Friend said. Foundation allocations are consistent statewide, with districts this year receiving $5,703 per student.
Combined with complexity funding, FWCS' total current tuition support is $6,771 per pupil. That's a 1.1% increase over the previous year, but it disguises the 7.3% loss FWCS suffered in complexity funding from the previous year.
Overall, the district has received a 4% increase in total tuition support over the last seven years, but reduced complexity levels have an effect, Friend said.
Complexity funding helps FWCS make up funding gaps for programs that aren't fully funded and are nonfoundational expenditures, such as special education and English language learner services. It can also support other needs, including classroom assistants, Friend said.
“As (complexity) declines,” she said, “either we have to decline that level of support, or we start eating into the foundation that's for everybody.”
That can mean less money for teacher salaries, district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. Districts that don't rely on complexity to fill funding gaps can use the foundation increase for things like teacher raises, she added.
“Our recent salary increases have been possible, in large part, because of federal grants we have received,” Stockman said. “They weren't directly paying for the increases, but they covered other costs, leaving money available for raises.”
Complexity funding is included in the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission's recommendations for approaches to increase average teacher pay in Indiana. It calls on state leaders to stop eroding that financial support.
In its report released in December, the teacher pay commission notes complexity funding has been tied to various factors in recent years, including the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch, the number of students eligible for free textbooks and, in its current form, the number of students receiving foster care or qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Over $1.14 billion was distributed to schools through the complexity grant in 2014 while $763 million was disbursed in 2019 – a decline of 33%, the report said.
“As a result of this decline, 27 school corporations received less tuition support funding per pupil from the state in 2020 than they did in 2015,” according to the commission's report. “Fourteen of these districts received between $103 and $584 less per pupil, and all 27 had higher-than-average rates of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.”
The report asserts this ultimately hurts students.
“Schools with higher levels of poverty have lower teacher retention and decreased teacher stability, which negatively affects student learning,” the report said. “Improving funding equity by increasing the funding to low-income school corporations has been shown to improve student achievement.”
BY THE NUMBERS
FWCS complexity funding levels
Source: Fort Wayne Community Schools