Balancing Disparities in Public School Funding is No Easy Fix

Oct 30, 2014

Andrew Downs, Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.
Credit Courtesy / Andrew Downs

In the past month, you may have heard or read the StateImpact story about the Indiana House Republican Caucus’ legislative priorities for the upcoming session.  One of the items that caught people’s attention was that the Republican Caucus wants to “fix” the K-12 school funding formula by reducing the gap between the highest and lowest funded districts.   According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the highest funded district receives more than $9,500 per student and the lowest receives approximately $5,500.

This priority caught the attention of some because the fix could mean that urban districts could see a decrease in funding while suburban and rural districts see an increase. 

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, House Speaker Brian Bosma offered some calming words, saying the goal was to increase funding so that no district suffers as a result of the fix.  He added that districts that are losing students should not continue to receive higher levels of funding when compared with those districts that are growing (this likely undid some of the calming his other statement may have accomplished). 

This priority also caught attention in Allen County because two of the four school districts are among the lowest funded districts in the state.  Northwest Allen County Schools (NACS) and Southwest Allen County Schools (SACS) rank among the ten lowest funded districts in the state (out of more than 300 districts).  State law does provide a way for districts to get additional tax revenue through a referendum.  SACS has done this and NACS was considering it late last year and earlier this year. 

Shortly after the Indiana House Republican Caucus priorities were announced, two faculty members in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs announced the findings of a study they completed regarding voluntary support for public schools.  (You can read the StateImpact story here.)  Associate Professors Ashlyn Aiko Nelson and Beth Gazley found that voluntary contributions to schools through nonprofit groups such as parent teacher organizations, local foundations, and booster clubs that support local schools directly have increased over the last two decades.  

"The biggest increases in voluntary support have happened in wealthier schools and the researchers believe this will cause the gap between rich and poor districts to increase."

Many will see this as good news, but the good news is dampened by the fact that the increase in contributions has not equaled the reductions in tax support schools have experienced.  Additionally, the biggest increases in voluntary support have happened in wealthier schools and the researchers believe this will cause the gap between rich and poor districts to increase. 

Hoosiers have always put a high value on education.  It was mentioned in our first constitution and can be found in Article 8 of our current constitution.  For a number of decades in the 1900s and early into the 2000s, funding for school districts was handled primarily by the tax payers in each school district.  This allowed for local variations that reflected the values of those districts, but it also resulted in some districts being better financed than others because of the resources in that district, not because of a difference in values. 

When the state took on a much larger part of the financial burden a few years ago, the differences were supposed to be leveled out to some degree.  If the past, the available legal options, and the research of Nelson and Gazley are any indication, districts that want to provide additional funds will go looking for ways to do it.  Districts that can afford to do so, will.


Andrew Downs is Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.

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