The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 31, 2019 1:00 am

Strength in numbers

As budget shortchanges public education again, it's time to make demands of our lawmakers

Ryan Hisner

In recent weeks, the issue of education funding in Indiana has been much in the news, and rightfully so. But I fear most readers and viewers are being misled both by politicians and news media.

In every story about school funding, I read about the 2.5% increase in funding the new budget grants public schools, often in the headline. An Associated Press headline from April 23 was typical: “GOP plan boosts Indiana schools by 2.5% over next two years.” The problem with this is that for traditional public schools, there is in reality zero increase in funding.

What, you ask, could I possibly mean? Are the papers printing bald lies? Not exactly – but they might as well be.

In violation of all standard economic practices, not to mention common sense, annual changes in public funding are almost universally reported in nominal terms, that is, not adjusted for inflation. Any honest economic analysis, as a matter of course, calculates changes in real terms, that is, adjusting for inflation.

When economic growth was reported as 3% in 2018, for example, that was in real terms. Most news outlets don't even bother to call it real economic growth because adjustment for inflation is simply taken for granted.

Not so with education funding. Instead, against all sense, nominal figures are cited, giving the false impression that education funding is increasing when, in fact, it has been decreasing for many years.

In the most recent budget, funding for education vouchers increased by about 7.5% and funding for charter schools by 10%. This left traditional public schools with a funding “increase” of 2%. But these numbers fail to account for inflation, which has also been 2% over the past 12 months. This means that the latest state education budget, which Gov. Eric Holcomb described as a “historic increase” in K-12 funding, in fact represents a 0% “increase” in real funding for traditional public schools. Historic indeed.

In a sense, Holcomb's “historic increase” claim is half right. While there was no increase, the fact that real education funding was not cut does represent an exception to recent history. While both politicians and the media, by citing nominal rather than real changes in school funding, seem intent on concealing the fact that, in recent years, our Republican state legislature has systematically starved public education of funding, the effects of the cuts to education are plain to see.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker notes that in the past 15 years, real teacher pay in Indiana has fallen by 15%. The unsurprising result is that Indiana is suffering from a teacher shortage, one that only figures to get worse given that, as the Times of Northwest Indiana reports, “According to 2015 data from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, enrollment in teaching programs and those graduating with teaching degrees declined 37% from 2004 through 2014.”

What sort of increase in annual education funding should we demand from our legislators? For education funding to remain a constant percentage of the economy, the annual increase must equal the sum of inflation and real gross domestic product growth. Last year inflation was 2% and real GDP growth 3%, meaning that for education funding to keep pace with the rest of the economy – never mind making up for years of steep relative decline – a 5% increase in funding would have been required. Most years that number is closer to 4%.

Needless to say, the Republican supermajority at the Statehouse is considering no such thing – nor will it, unless lawmakers are shamed and subjected to public pressure for their negligence.

Meanwhile, our legislators continue to coddle their wealthy campaign donors. In recent years, they have enacted corporate tax cuts and a cap on property taxes – both of which overwhelmingly benefit the rich at the expense of the larger public.

We've seen the passage of right-to-work legislation – a blatant attack on employees which would be more aptly called a right-to-work-for-poverty-wages law – as well as regular legislative assaults on public workers. Lavish contracts are awarded to standardized test companies with no accountability. Public roads are converted to toll roads and sold for a song to foreign corporations, and major public highways are allowed to lapse into ruinous moonscapes.

As in the nation at large, corporations and the rich have invested heavily in campaign contributions and are reaping great returns at the expense of the public, thanks to our grateful state legislators. And why shouldn't they behave in such a way? Even as the Republican supermajority shafts them year after year, our citizenry docilely returns the same representatives.

As the great American hero and abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand” – and there have been precious few demands put to our state legislators.

Ryan Hisner is a teacher at Adams Central Community Schools.

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