The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 25, 2018 1:00 am

Cumulative effect

Individual district budgets don't fully reflect vouchers' drain

Phil Downs

Recently there have been a lot of stories and opinion pieces written about the Indiana voucher program and school funding. There appears to be a misconception about how the voucher program works as well as its impact on public schools.

Here is how a voucher works. A family wanting to attend a private school that accepts vouchers files their state taxes like every other family. Like all taxpayers, a little over 44 percent of their income tax goes to support the education of all of Indiana's students through a fund called Tuition Support. The family that qualifies and wants to send its student to a voucher school then fills out a form (the voucher) directing the state to send money from the Tuition Support budget to their private school. This year Indiana will send more than $150 million to private schools. The amount of each voucher varies per student, but the average is $4,258.

It is conventional wisdom that the voucher program only affects big cities. While voucher usage is higher in big cities, the financial effect is felt in every school district because the voucher dollars come out of Tuition Support, in effect reducing the dollars supporting students in all public schools.

State legislators are quick to point out that Indiana is now spending more on education than it ever has. That is true, and it was true in the 2015 budget and the 2013 budget before that. But our spending is not keeping up with inflation and it is affected by the increasing number of vouchers being used.

Let's take a look at Indiana's educational spending through the lens of a fictitious student named Fiona Hoosier. In January 2010, Fiona was in kindergarten and now is in the eighth grade. She has attended Logansport schools her whole life and loves being one of just over 4,200 Berries.

From January of her kindergarten year (2010) to January of her eighth-grade year (2018), the Consumer Price Index increased by 14.39 percent. This means if Fiona's parents had purchased something when she was in kindergarten for $100, it would cost them $114.39 today. If Hoosier paychecks are not 14.39 percent higher in 2018 than they were in 2010, they are falling behind inflation, even though their paychecks might be higher.

Indiana's Tuition Support budget has increased over that same period by 10.2 percent. This is well short of inflation. When you look at a per-student expense and factor in the dollars that have been sent to private schools as vouchers, Indiana's Tuition Support has only increased by 7.18 percent per student. That is half the inflation rate! This is at a time when the state's entire budget has gone up 16.82 percent. Public education has lagged in Indiana's budget over Fiona's time in school.

When Fiona was in second grade, the state began giving vouchers to private-school students. Since then, the voucher program has grown to about 35,500 students. The voucher program has essentially created Indiana's second-largest school district without the oversight found in public school districts. Most of these students have never attended a public school before using a voucher, and this year only 274 vouchers were used to leave an F-rated public school.

If the $150 million from Tuition Support used for vouchers this school year were redistributed to the public schools as part of each district's basic tuition grant, Fiona's Logansport School district would have received an additional $619,000 this year.

The impact of the voucher program is not based on how many vouchers are used in your district. It is based on each year's voucher program cost to the Tuition Support budget across the state, regardless of the number of vouchers used within the district. For example, Lebanon Schools lost more than $530,000, Plainfield Schools lost more than $770,000, and Carmel Schools lost more than $2,365,000 this year. Currently, there are 23 school districts where no vouchers are used. They are small districts and the voucher program costs them more than $4 million this year combined. Peru Schools is the largest of these districts and it lost more than $321,000.

Here are this year's losses in Allen County: East Allen County Schools, $1.38 million; Fort Wayne Community Schools, $4.47 million; Northwest Allen County Schools, $1.13 million; and Southwest Allen County Schools, $1.08 million.

To make this complicated issue much simpler, and in honor of Fiona and Pi Day (March 14), think of a loganberry pie. Indiana has baked a smaller pie and expects it to feed a larger number of people. More kids, fewer dollars.

Phil Downs is superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools.

The cost of vouchers

Because schools are funded by taxpayers statewide, the money following students to private and parochial schools comes from the source of tuition support shared by all public schools in Indiana, not just those in communities with voucher schools. The loss to each traditional public school district in northeast Indiana is based on its percentage of the state's total enrollment. The figures below represent the loss of state funding to each district for the 2017-18 school year.

Adams County

Adams Central: $158,392

North Adams Community: $280,999

South Adams: $177,458

Allen County

East Allen County: $1,380,211

Fort Wayne Community: $4,469,590

Northwest Allen: $1,133,383

Southwest Allen: $1,084,253

DeKalb County

DeKalb Central: $535,600

DeKalb Eastern: $197,990

Garrett-Keyser-Butler: $247,854

Hamilton Community: $60,570

Huntington County

Huntington: $789,614

Kosciusko County

Tippecanoe Valley: $280,853

Triton: $131,700

Wa-Nee Community: $430,445

Wawasee Community: $453,324

Warsaw Community: $1,018,402

LaGrange County

Lakeland: $305,051

Prairie Heights Community: $195,937

Westview: $307,545

Noble County

Central Noble: $178,338

East Noble: $537,506

West Noble: $354,182

Steuben County

Fremont Community: $150,619

MSD Steuben County: $386,594

Wabash County

Manchester Community: $221,309

Wabash City: $221,749

Wabash County: $285,252

Wells County

MSD Bluffton-Harrison: $215,296

Northern Wells: $348,903

Southern Wells: $96,062

Whitley County

Smith-Green: $153,406

Whitko Community: $223,069

Whitley County Consolidated: $519,467

Push and pull

Two factors have exacerbated the funding squeeze on traditional public schools since 2010: The number of students has increased as the amount of money spent by the state decreased.

Enrollment grew from 1,037,008 in the 2009-10 school year to 1,066,181 this year. Public school enrollment overall has decreased by less than 1 percent, but total enrollment has increased 2.81 percent with the addition of voucher students supported by the state, according to figures from the Indiana Department of Education.

On the funding side of the equation, support for education has lagged the Consumer Price Index, which increased by 14.39 percent from January 2010 to this past January.

Figures from the State Budget Agency show spending increases in terms of the as-passed biennial budget since 2009-10:

Rate of inflation: +14.39 percent

Education overall: +11.4 percent

Tuition support: +10.2 percent

Health and human services: +31.6 percent

Economic development: +116.08 percent

Conservation/environment: +31.6 percent

Public safety: +34 percent

General government: +56.6 percent

Construction: +44.9 percent

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