The recent promulgation of eight indicators of financial health for school systems glaringly ignores the state's role in the worsening financial condition of many public school districts.
Since the 2008 recession, despite claims of spending more than ever on education, the state has gone too far it in its efforts to “equalize” and conserve school funding, resulting in uncontrollable school financial crises.
In response to the recession of 2008, $300 million was cut from the education budget. Other factors affecting public schools:
• Since 2010, the total state budget has risen 17 percent.
• Since 2010, the consumer price index (cost of living) has risen 17 percent.
• Since 2010, the education budget has only risen 10 percent.
• Vouchers cost $150 million a year, and the cost is diverted from public school funding, resulting in an actual 7 percent increase in public school funding. (More than half the Indiana voucher recipients never attended public schools.)
• Without vouchers, every public school would get an additional $150 per student.
• Property tax caps have resulted in millions of dollars lost for many school districts.
• Public schools in poor communities annually experience a 10 percent to 60 percent property tax shortfall, equaling tens of millions of lost dollars for some.
• Remedies for lost revenue are no longer provided by the state. Districts now depend on local referendums.
• Lost property taxes that pay for school debt, construction and transportation must be replaced from state dollars intended for student instruction.
• A portion of state tuition support called the “complexity index” provides special funding to meet the needs of the poorest students. Not only has the complexity index dollar amount been decreased to “equalize” the dollars per student among all schools, but the state has decreased the number of students qualifying – for some schools – by half.
• Forbes magazine points out that Indiana is ill advisedly attempting to fund three systems of schools – traditional public, charters and vouchers – with the same budget it once used for only traditional public schools.
• The “money follows the student” mantra for charter school students creates a loss of school funding that is significantly and disproportionately more damaging than the simple sum of the dollars. If a district loses 100 students, the loss can be spread over 12 grades. A classroom still needs a teacher if it has 25 students instead of 30, but the district has lost $600,000 in funding.
• Of the 20 schools or districts receiving the highest per-pupil funding, 18 are charter schools, none of which are required to report profit taking.
• Since 2010, teacher salaries have dropped 16 percent.
There needs to be an end to the expectation that the only solution for schools, especially those in the poorest communities, in response to uncontrollable losses of revenue, is to cut, cut, cut programs, teachers, support staff and salaries regardless of the negative effect on students.
The implication of poor financial management compared to schools in wealthier communities is misplaced. The pendulum for “equalization” and minimalizing education funding has swung too far. The state must accept responsibility for the financial conditions that schools cannot control.
Tony Lux, a board member for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, is the retired superintendent of Merrillville schools.