Eye on the Pie and Opinion

MARCUS: Indiana says, 'If it's broken, throw it out'

January 29, 2011

Indiana’s new policy is, “If it is broken, throw it out.” We applied that policy to township assessors and now we are applying it to township government. Soon we may do the same to urban school districts.

When something is not working as it should, what do you do? Kick it or bang it, thinking a good jarring will restore proper functioning? Examine it, diagnose the operation of its parts, seek to fix the faulty mechanism? Rid yourself of the offending thing and get a new one? Or, do without whatever the thing was intended to do?

Not long ago, similar homes in the same Indiana county were assigned very different values. Assessments seemed arbitrary and subjective. Township assessors’ offices were ripe with opportunities for nepotism, excessive spending and sweetheart assessments. The Legislature’s solution: Get rid of township assessors, except in a few instances.

County assessors assumed the responsibilities of township assessors. Most often, the township assessors were hired into the county assessors’ offices. Those township assessors who ran low-cost, efficient and equitable operations were bundled in with the inept and the crooks.

Rather than carefully auditing the activities in each township assessor’s office, Indiana chopped down the institution. We did not expose the crooks or offer up the inept for public scrutiny. Worse, when the scythe cuts through, the healthy plants fall with the diseased. 

Now township trustees and their advisory boards face their turn. Again there are charges of mismanagement and malfeasance. Instead of investigating, exposing and prosecuting, we will eradicate township government.

Yes, too many local governments infest Indiana. We do not, however, establish criteria for consolidating governments or coordinating governmental functions. In the case of townships, we are instructed to abandon their activities to the counties.

Likewise, large inner-city school corporations are under attack. The fact that such schools are the depositories for society’s poorest and most afflicted populations is well-understood, but not forgiven. Instead of seeking to improve these schools, we rush to put them out of business.

A proposal before the Legislature offers vouchers for use in private schools. For students from households with income of less than $42,000, the vouchers would be worth 90 percent of the per-pupil state aid formerly received by the school the student leaves. Statewide, such vouchers would average more than $6,000 per student per year. In Indianapolis Public Schools, the amount would be in excess of $7,800 per student for private tuition.

The amount of the voucher (and the commensurate decrease in state aid to the public school) goes down as the student’s household income rises. For a student from a household with income from $42,000 to $84,000, the voucher is 50 percent of per-student aid, falling to 25 percent when the student comes from a household with income between $84,000 and $105,000. This insidious idea presumes a school with poor students can give up a larger part of its state aid than can a school with a wealthy clientele.

This program destroys the public school economy. If 10 students leave an elementary school, how much less money is needed to run that school and its buses? Will the heating costs decline for the building? Will fewer teachers be required?

We don’t like the performance of urban schools, so we devise a program to destroy them. We don’t approve of the behavior of township officials, so we legislate them out of existence. We don’t feel comfortable with the assessment of our homes, so we dismiss township assessors.

If it doesn’t work, break it. If it is broken, throw it out. Never fix anything. Will that be the next motto on our license plates?•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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