Last month, an Indiana House bill that would allow a local St. Joseph County township to leave the South Bend School system caused a shouting match between Black lawmakers and their Republican colleagues at the Statehouse. Proponents say the bill is about convenience, while some opponents say it could harm urban school districts.
To understand House Bill 1367, you have to go back to 1979, when the South Bend Community School Corporation was planning to reorganize.
Two townships in the rural part of St. Joseph County asked to separate and join the nearby John Glenn School Corporation instead. Liberty Township was allowed to leave, while Greene Township had to stay with the South Bend Schools.
Fast-forward 40 years to today – Greene Township is still a part of the South Bend School district. But John Glenn Schools Superintendent Christopher Winchell said less than a quarter of Greene Township students actually attend South Bend Schools, while 40 percent choose to attend John Glenn Schools through open enrollment.
“This is about the people in Greene Township living physically closer to the John Glenn Schools than they live to the South Bend Schools," Winchell said. "This is really about proximity to educational institutions.”
House Bill 1367 would establish a pilot program allowing the township to leave South Bend Schools and officially join the John Glenn school district.
Representative Jake Teshka (R-South Bend), the bill’s author, said while the program is specific to Greene Township right now, it could one day be used across the state.
“There are other areas throughout the state that are facing similar issues. What we’re aiming to look at is, when these situations present themselves, is there a pathway forward?" Teshka said. "We want to test that and try it out in Greene Township.”
It’s that potential for statewide reach that has some lawmakers concerned.
Representative Gregory Porter (D-Indianapolis) is a member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and a former chair of the House Education Committee. He said when he first heard about the bill, something about it “didn’t sit right” with him – namely, that it would allow students in a diverse, urban school district to leave in favor of a rural, primarily white one.
“When you start having legislation pass as a pilot, that’s an indicator that something else is brewing throughout that community," Porter said. "It is a form of segregation within those school corporations.”
When Porter tried to voice those concerns on the House floor, he was heckled and ultimately shouted down by his Republican colleagues.
“I said ‘From our perspective, this will create achievement gaps between students.’ They booed me and raised their voices," Porter said. "At that point, I said ‘You know, this isn’t going anywhere,’ and I just stopped.”
Teshka said he doesn’t think there’s merit to the claim that the bill is intentionally discriminatory, but he said he reached out to Black lawmakers and committed to working on “areas of common ground.”
“We’re not necessarily going to agree that the catalyst for this bill or that the outcomes are intentionally discriminatory, but I recognize that there is real, raw emotion there, and we can’t just be dismissive of that either,” Teshka said.
Porter isn’t the only one with concerns. Kareemah Fowler, chief financial officer for the South Bend Community School Corporation, said even though Greene Township represents only 3 percent of taxable property in the district, the bill could cause financial trouble for South Bend Schools.
She said allowing school districts to divide at the township level could ultimately be harmful to urban school districts like South Bend.
“We have 13 townships," Fowler said. "We already struggle with dollars and resources, and if now every single township could create their own district, you’d be diluting your resources and your ability to make sure that every child has the opportunity for a stellar education.”
Two bills similar to the current legislation have failed to pass the state legislature in recent sessions. Even if Bill 1367 passes, it could still be struck down in court – the South Bend Community School Corporation is the only one in Indiana under a federal order to desegregate. Any changes to the district that would affect its racial makeup have to be independently approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
If it does pass, Greene Township would still have a long way to go before it could join John Glenn Schools. Officials would have to develop an annexation proposal and get it approved by the State Board of Education. They would also have to present a petition signed by the majority of the township’s registered voters.
The bill is currently assigned to the Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedures. It’s sponsored by three senators from Northern Indiana: two Republicans, and one Democrat.
If you appreciate this kind of journalism on your local NPR station, please support it by donating here.