Changes To Funding Formula Still Leave Many Districts In The Red

Mar 9, 2015

School districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, with high free and reduced lunch rates, will see a cut in state funding under the new formula.
Credit Kyle Stokes / http://www.ipbs.org/

Legislators are rewriting the complicated school funding formula, and even though that means across the board increases, some districts will still struggle with finances.

But the effort to create more equitable system isn’t being met with much support.

Talking about how the state distributes money to schools isn’t exactly a thrill ride.

"My family won’t let me talk about it at home because it’s so boring and they tend to fall asleep at dinner when we do talk about it," says Scott Robison, the superintendent of schools in Zionsville, where the median household income is more than a $100,000, the free/reduced lunch rate is less than 5 percent…and the school funding formula currently makes his one of the lowest funded districts in the state.

It seems counter intuitive that a school in a wealthy community is having to make deep cuts to stay out of the red.

"We lost some world languages, we lost our International Baccalaureate program at the high school level, we lost the ability to run most of our science labs for more than a year, because our class sizes exceeded the safety ratings," says Robison.

In 2007 the district got about 65-percent of its money from property taxes. Under that model, more expensive houses meant better-funded schools.

But in 2008, the state placed a limit on the amount of property tax revenue school districts could collect. And to replace that funding stream, the state developed a formula to distribute money to schools.

It can get confusing but there are really only two terms you need to know: foundation and complexity.

Foundation is the term for the amount of money the state gives a school for each student who is enrolled. It’s the same for everyone, and more students mean more money.

The other term is complexity, which means schools with more kids in poverty get additional money.

For example, the state gives Zionsville just less than $5000 per student. 

But that dollar figure jumps to almost $7000 in the Indianapolis Public Schools district where the free and reduced lunch rate is 100-percent. 

And those dollars add up. In his district, Robison says over the last seven years Zionsville has seen a loss of money, meaning lost opportunities for the students.

“Here you have a dark media center," says Robison. "We’ve just recently moved our computers out of here, our stacks out of here…it’s done.”

To help close this gap between districts, the legislature is rewriting the formula. It increases the amount of foundation money for each student, but dramatically cuts the complexity. For schools like Zionsville, the increase won’t get them out of a deficit and they’re still facing potential large class sizes in the near future.

On the flip side, schools in impoverished areas will face huge cuts from the complexity changes.

Martinsville Superintendent Michelle Moore says her district will get hit from both sides: They’ll lose complexity money and because of declining enrollment they’ll get less foundation money too.

Moore says the loss of complexity money is particularly disappointing because it raises a very important question about educating kids.

"Do we believe it costs the same to educate each child? And that’s a fundamental philosophical question that’s been debated in education for decades," says Moore. "I personally have taught in schools with children in poverty and I realized that it does cost more to educate a child in poverty."

But House GOP budget writer Tim Brown, who reworked the formula, says issues of poverty cannot dictate funding.

"Did Mary’s mother get arrested the night before? Did Johnny not come with shoes to school? Those to me are not core issues of education," says Brown.

The goal of trying to make the system more equitable seems to only be frustrating everyone equally, and Brown recognizes this. 

"Somebody asked me earlier, would I make everybody happy? And I don’t know if I have those powers," says Brown.

The House already approved the budget, sending it to the Senate for final approval.