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The 'facts' on Indiana school spending and choice

Through a public relations representative, Betsy Wiley of School Choice Indiana asked to respond to an earlier blog entry. Here are her comments, followed by my response.

Karen Francisco blogged about an Anderson, Ind. family who exercised their freedom to choose the school that best meets the needs of their child. The post took this family's experience and made some strong statements regarding school choice and the funding of Indiana's public schools that simply are not supported by facts.

Hoosier lawmakers passed Indiana's school voucher law in 2011, and the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld its constitutionality earlier this year. The law is considered by legal and educational experts to be among the strongest in the country. Unlike other states' voucher laws, which authorize choice only to families in an academically failing public school, Indiana's law was crafted on the premise that all Hoosier families should have the right to choose the best environment for their child in which to learn. A particular school may not be the best fit for a student for many reasons besides academic performance, including safety, curricular offerings, class size, etc. Indiana policymakers acknowledged the importance the proper learning environment plays in student success. One size does not fit all Hoosier children and families.

Indiana lawmakers, corporate and community leaders, taxpayers, families and even public school reformers are united in their support of all Hoosier children receiving the best education that we can provide. Our more than 50,000 teachers in Indiana are hard-working, dedicated individuals, and for anyone to suggest that a push for continued improvement to our educational delivery system means one is "intent of stripping public school teachers of their professional status" is outrageous. Education reform supporters in Indiana and across the country are fighting to support and encourage our many excellent public school teachers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 21 states have more non-teaching staff than classroom teacher, and Indiana ranks fourth-highest among them. The same report shows that from 1992-2009, the number of administrators and other non-teaching staff in Indiana grew 46.2% — a number nearly five times greater than the rate of student enrollment. It's not school choice that is causing our excellent public school teachers to feel like factory workers instead of the professionals they are. It is the antiquated, administrative-heavy system in which they are forced to try and educate.

Francisco infers that several problems within the traditional public school system are tied to funding of public education. But no state in the country puts more of their state budget toward the funding of K-12 education than Indiana. Taxpayers invest more than $7 billion of the state's $13 billion budget in K-12 education, and the most recent General Assembly opted to restore $300 million annually to Indiana's public schools.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the average cost per public school student in 2012 was $11,711. For Anderson Public Schools, the example in Francisco's blog post, the average cost per student was $12,423. State taxpayer support of K-12 public schools averaged $6,552 per student in 2012. Anderson Community Schools received an average of $8,355 per student in state support that year.

Choice Scholarships (vouchers) award an amount equal to 50-90% of the amount of state support the student's assigned public school receives. This creates a savings to the taxpayer that is then redistributed to all of Indiana's public schools. In Anderson, 267 students are attending a school of their choice on a voucher. This creates $45,500 of taxpayer savings to redistribute to Anderson Public Schools.

It is imperative that as we continue to discuss the needed transformation of our educational system, we do so with a clear understanding of the fact. Anything less is unfair and misleading to Hoosier parents and taxpayers.

Betsy Wiley

President - School Choice Indiana

My response: I've commented on many of the arguments Wiley and other voucher proponents many times on this space, including their most oft-repeated argument that parents deserve a choice and the laughable assertion that voucher entitlements create "savings" for public schools.

Vouchers don't give parents a choice – they give private and parochial schools the chance to choose which students they will accept. Not until voucher schools routinely accept refugee students, children with severe developmental disabilities and other populations that are costly to educate should voucher proponents be allowed to claim parental choice exists. Even then, it's likely that many small communities won't have school choice.

Wiley's claim that public school teachers are being made to feel like factory workers because of an "antiquated, administrative-heavy system" doesn't square with my observations. Yes, I routinely hear from public school teachers burdened by requirements placed on them, but most seem to recognize the demands they face come from state and federal accountability requirements and not from their building or district administrators. In fact, no group is facing greater demands than building-level administrators.

As for Wiley's argument about the administrative overhead, I can't dispute the validity of the figures in the study she cites, but I do know that Indiana lags most other states in its commitment to early childhood education. If we have more administrators per student, it's likely to address our negligence in meeting children's needs early, when it's more cost-effective to do so. In spite of sound research by economists, Indiana policymakers have failed to recognize that it's cheaper to invest in early education than in welfare, public safety, the criminal justice system and prisons. Probably because preschool teachers don't have the political clout of attorneys and private prison operators.

Finally, there's Wiley's argument -- a popular one with the voucher crowd -- that Indiana spends a larger percentage of its state budget on education than any other state. The claim is meaningless. The state's share of education costs and support for education are entirely different things. If the total state budget was $1 million and Indiana lawmakers dedicated 100 percent of it to schools, we would finish dead last in support for education.

In their zeal to cut local property taxes, legislators shifted school costs almost entirely to state revenues, where -- not coincidentally -- they have almost total control over how much is spent. State support for education now makes up about 62 percent of total support for K-12 schools in Indiana. In Ohio, for example, just 43 percent of total revenue support comes from the state, yet the state spends $1,853 more per-student than Indiana.

Wiley and others would have you believe Indiana spends more on education than any other state. That is simply not true. The latest U.S. Census figures on school finance place Indiana in the bottom half of states for total per-pupil spending on K-12 education. The national average for 2011, the latest figure available, was $10,560 per student, according to the Census figures. Indiana spent $9,370 per student. It was outspent on a per-student basis by the District of Columbia and 30 other states, including Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana.

The Census figures also cast doubt on Wiley's claims about administrative overhead: Indiana ranks 18th for the amount spent on school administration; 29th for general administrative costs for education. It now ranks 27th for instructional salaries and benefits.

I will agree with Wiley that it is unfair and misleading to Indiana parents and taxpayers to discuss education with anything less than a clear understanding of the facts.

When will school choice supporters start using them?

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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