The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 17, 2019 1:00 am


Budget shuffle shortchanges public schools

Indiana lawmakers are preparing a clever sleight of hand in their biennial budget. By session's end on April 29, their aim is to convince Hoosiers they've done right by Indiana's public schools, students and teachers.

Watch closely. The cards legislative leaders are shuffling shortchange them all. Administrators who guide Indiana schools recognize it. Teachers see it in their paychecks. Students will be the real losers.

A false narrative on public school support underpins the GOP supermajorities' case.

“The money is there. It's just being spent horribly inefficiently,” insisted Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, during a House Education Committee hearing.

Not only is the money not there, the 2.2 percent statewide average increases each year in House Bill 1001 are misleading, according to Chris Himsel, superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools. 

“The numbers I go to are per-student: a 1.5 percent increase (in fiscal year 2020) and 1.7 percent increase (in 2021). Here's why that number is so important: It's for students currently being funded and for mandates currently being funded. That's the number that allows us to keep up with inflation,” Himsel said. “When Rep. (Jim) Lucas says, 'You don't need any more funding; we've already funded you,'  – it's disingenuous, because health insurance costs go up; utility costs go up; chalk, paper – all the different supplies go up. The contracted services we use to implement all of the mandates they pass go up.”

A new evaluation of Indiana's education funding and teacher pay illustrates his argument and how the state has lost ground compared with other states.

“Between 2009-10 and 2015-16, Indiana's rankings fell by 11 places on funding per student, 17 places on funding per capita, and 16 places on funding per $1,000 personal income,” writes Robert Toutkoushian, a former Indiana University faculty member who is now professor of higher education at the University of Georgia. “In 2015-16, Indiana ranked 34th in terms of instructional spending per student, 42nd on spending on instructional salaries per student, and 23rd in spending on instructional benefits per student. These rankings are substantially lower than what were found for Indiana only ten years prior.”

The decline began in 2009, when support for K-12 schoolswas cut by $300 million. It did not come without warning. Then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett acknowledged Indiana was “hitting the reset button.” “We are going to be setting a new baseline for calendar year 2010 into the future,” he said. “This is not a temporary issue.”

Bennett was right. Per-student support was slashed and has not increased to keep up with inflation. The cut coincided with the state's takeover of school general fund costs, reducing the authority of locally elected school board members to meet district needs, including teacher pay. The referendum tool was supposed to provide additional support, but without adequate increases in base funding and with revenue lost to property tax caps ($736 million in the last three years alone), districts have come to depend on voter-approved tax increases to cover the shortfall.

Compounding the harm to public schools, Indiana began supporting voucher schools. And contrary to legislators' claims the money simply follows the child, 58 percent of voucher students never attended a public school.

No money was previously allocated for students whose parents paid tuition, and the General Assembly did not earmark additional funds for vouchers, so the money flows from the fund once dedicated solely to public schools.

While budget projections appear to give Northwest Allen schools a comfortable increase over the next two years, the money simply reflects the district's increased enrollment. Per-student funding, adjusted for inflation, has dropped by nearly $500 since 2009, Himsel said. 

“That's what I'm trying to make our legislators understand. It is a cut if you don't keep up with inflation.” he said.

“That has to come from somewhere. And they seem to be shocked when it comes from salaries.”

The superintendent said he has been intentional in ensuring pay increases for administrators were less than increases for teachers, twice taking a pay cut himself.

At a March 7 board work session, Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson pointed to mandates the General Assembly continues to heap on public schools that require new administrative positions, including a proposed requirement to track what students do after they graduate.

“We don't have enough counselors now to deal with what we're supposed to do for kids now in school,” she said. “And the question is why? What is the benefit and what resources are you giving us to get this done?”

Indiana lawmakers have not kept up with their obligation to public education. Insisting they have increased spending ignores both the budget restraints they have placed on public schools and their decision to fund schooling for thousands of private and parochial school students without raising taxes. Don't be fooled by their sleight of hand. 

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