EDITORIAL: School funding has fatal flaws

July 13, 2009

The fear of a government shutdown July 1 has passed. With 18 months before another legislative budget debate, it would be nice to take a breather.

But we have work to do before then.

A budget was passed June 30, but it’s a budget balanced on the backs of poor children.

Legislators deserve praise for at least slightly increasing overall education funding, but because of a flawed funding formula, urban districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools actually will lose money in the next two years. The district serves 34,000 children who cannot afford to take a hit.

Take a look at IPS students:

• 82 percent qualify for free or lower-priced lunch.

• 21 percent need special education.

• 14 percent change schools midyear.

• 11 percent don’t speak English fluently.

• 10 percent do not live with their families.

Providing an adequate education to such disadvantaged students—a big chunk of our city’s future work force—is expensive. Although IPS does receive more funding per child than suburban districts, that money isn’t enough to cover the cost of special programs required by the federal government. In the past academic year, providing special education and English-as-a-foreign-language instruction cost IPS $34 million more than it received for those purposes. That’s $34 million that didn’t go to the rest of the district’s students.

IPS will lose $28 million in state funding in the 2010-2011 budget, a 2.8-percent reduction in the first year and a 4.3-percent cut in the second. That’s partly because it is losing students. But the students who leave tend not to be those who need special services. So, as enrollment drops, per-student costs rise.

To stem that tide, IPS needs to offer more of what middle-class families want. It has made strides in that direction by expanding its magnet programs. In fact, 85 families from outside IPS boundaries have applied to send their children to IPS schools this fall. But the funding shortfall will put a stop to increasing popular magnet programs.

“We can really turn this district around, but we’re being hamstrung by the Legislature,” said IPS spokeswoman Mary Louise Bewley.

Reviving IPS is a tall order. But urban districts deserve a fighting chance. So we urge the Legislature to form a task force to study how to create a funding formula that spreads money among schools more equitably.

The current formula does not take into account the expense of the additional social services, health care, special ed, language instruction and security urban districts provide, said Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville.

The goal of a task force would be to build consensus without the pressure of ongoing budget negotiations. Ideally, the new formula would be long term, removing the need to tinker with it every two years and putting a stop to the squabbling over urban vs. suburban districts.

 “Surely we can put all the big minds together and figure out how to make a formula work for Indiana,” Simpson said.

Our children deserve that much.


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