Jenny is an elementary school student and her family lives in the Warsaw school district, but one parent works in the Wawasee district. Jenny’s grandparents live in the Wawasee district, so it would be more convenient to drop Jenny off before school and pick her up after school at the grandparents home.
Before just a few years ago, Jenny (a random name used only as an illustration) would still have to attend a Warsaw school unless her family paid the cost of tuition to transfer her. But a state law passed in 2010, Senate Bill 252, allows public school corporations to waive tuition fees for transfer students.
A major factor involved in the legislation was the fact the state has taken over general fund payments to school districts, so the funding follows the student. In the past, property taxes financed general funds.
Three years later, the legislation has impacted some school districts. Some are actively recruiting students through billboards, newspaper ads and other means and a few have even gone as far as sending buses into neighboring school districts.
Locally, Wawasee has seen students transfer both in and out from neighboring districts including Warsaw, Whitko, West Noble, Fairfield and Wa-Nee. This has caused some fluctuation in Wawasee’s enrollment numbers, but no major trends yet.
Those who support the law feel it can cause school districts to reevaluate their basic purpose and look for ways to improve how it is carried out. But from Wawasee’s perspective, students choosing other school districts or coming to Wawasee from another district has been more about practical reasons.
Dr. Tom Edington, Wawasee Community School Corp. superintendent, said more often it is convenient for a family to transfer a student because of work, childcare or transportation arrangements. “Principals and others tell us it is being done more for practical reasons,” he said. “It is much rarer that a transfer is due to a particular program or because a child is getting along poorly with their teachers.”
There are exceptions, Edington noted, such as a few students attending school in Goshen because it is a larger school district and offers specialized music programs Wawasee does not offer.
Though a school district can gain state funding by adding more students, and the budget has been tighter in recent years, Wawasee has chosen not to recruit students outside its district. “We feel it is not right to try to entice students from another district to come to our school district,” Edington said. “We don’t want to look at students like they are commodities.”
He emphasized it is better to work with, not against, neighboring school districts. He cited, for example, students from West Noble and Fairfield coming to Wawasee to attend classes in the career and technical cooperative. And the academics and opportunities should sell themselves, he added, so the focus has been more on upgrading the academics and opportunities.
Edington said he believes the career and technical program is a strength for the Wawasee corporation, as well as opportunities for students both in and out of school, such as clubs and after school programs and activities. And the quality of people living in the district is a plus. “We have many people who really care about kids and want to help them,” he said.
It remains to be seen, though, just how much the quality of academics and programs could be a factor. Edington said he is not aware of any studies being done yet showing how much the ability to transfer is helping students improve academically.
Good or bad, competition has been created whether Wawasee has engaged in it or not.