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The Journal Gazette

Friday, April 05, 2019 1:00 am

Ongoing neglect hits rural schools hardest

Phil Downs

Phil Downs is superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools.

Here is a fact: From 2009 to 2018, the tuition support budget used to pay Indiana's public and charter school teachers has grown by 13% while inflation has grown by 17%, and the total Indiana general fund budget has grown by 21%.

There is money in the general fund to bring education funding up to the level of inflation. Our elected officials made a choice to move money away from public and charter educators and are failing to live up to the responsibility they took on in 2009 to fund public education.

This year, the loss to inflation for each public and charter student in Indiana is roughly $300. That money has been moved to other parts of the general fund. Much of that money is being used to promote what Michael Hicks, at on.jg.net/2FGzZR2, called “the jobs of today rather than the careers of tomorrow” by “shifting funds out of K-12 schooling and into job training.”

On top of that lack of funding, this year the Choice Scholarship Program (vouchers) allowed 36,328 voucher students to take money off the top of the tuition support budget, further shorting the rest of Indiana's public and charter schools.

Funding the voucher program out of the tuition support budget means the rate of growth in public and charter schools is 10% not 13%.

Chris Himsel, in the March 13 Journal Gazette editorial “Budget shuffle shortchanges public schools,” has shown that the current proposed budget calls for vouchers to take even more money from public and charter schools, with no oversight, for the next two years.

If Indiana is to pursue the noble goal of funding all its children's educations, it should do that. Since the voucher program began in 2011, no additional money has been added to the budget to fund the vouchers, and the program has created a de facto final step in the school funding process which is hurting most communities in Indiana.

Indiana's public schools are the center of their communities, especially its small towns.

The money they receive from the tuition support budget provides a significant boost to their local economies, while their educators partner with local families to help raise their children.

By refusing to match the inflation rate over the past 10 years and redirecting voucher dollars to more populous areas, the General Assembly is undercutting rural Indiana's chance to compete in the 21st century.

Think about how this affects a local economy.

The voucher money coming off the top of the tuition support budget is roughly $150 per student. That doesn't sound like much until you apply it to a small rural community.

Southeast Fountain School Corporation has almost 1,100 students this year. That $150 would be more than $160,000 annually, which could be teacher raises and/or increased programming.

That would be nearly $160,000 more to spend in the local economy. There are no voucher students in Southeast Fountain to bring any of the tax dollars moved to the voucher program back, so the Choice Scholarship Program cost the Southeast Fountain local economy $160,000 this year.

Right or wrong, taxpayers deserve to know the opportunity costs of the voucher program. The local economies of 13 counties (Adams, Allen, Bartholomew, Daviess, Jackson, Jefferson, Lake, Madison, Marion, Posey, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe and Vandeburgh) benefit from the voucher program on the backs of the remaining counties (see the breakdown at on.jg.net/2TMAzlA).

We have all heard legislators say they “can't just print money.” Analysis shows they haven't needed to “print money” for the past 10 years; the money has been there. They have made choices where to spend it (vouchers, $150 per student) and where not to spend it (public and charter schools, $300 per student lost to inflation).

If the General Assembly is not going to invest in the education of all its students by bringing tuition support up to the inflation rate and actually adding the additional funding for voucher students, it should at least be held accountable for the current financial impact of that program on rural Indiana.