WARSAW — From a pile of statistics displayed in an hour-long presentation Thursday night, Nov. 7, came a fairly succinct assessment about Indiana’s school funding policy:
The amount of money for students is not keeping pace with inflation and is being strained further by the state’s voucher funding policy.
That was the bottom line from Dr. Phil Downs, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, whose presentation, “Follow the Money: An Analysis of Why Public Education Funding Is Not Keeping Pace In Indiana,” attracted roughly 60 people to the Performing Arts Center at Warsaw Community High School Thursday night.
Downs, who was named the 2020 Indiana Superintendent of the Year by the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents two months ago, has researched the issue extensively and is armed with plenty of statistics that can be found on his website.
Downs gave visitors a look at how the state funds education and then the impact the voucher program has had on funding for all schools.
Students who choose to attend a charter school can receive as much of 90 percent of the money set aside for individual student funding. While the money is not taken from directly from the district, it is reducing the amount of money indirectly.
In 2018, more than 36,000 students were attending charter schools while schools across the state are helping fund those students, according to Downs.
Downs explains the situation this way:
In the 2009-10 school year, the amount of money set aside for education and divided by the number of enrolled public school students was $6,192. In 2018-19, that level would be $6,998, a 13% increase. But the addition of voucher students into the equation cut the average to $6,826, which represents a 10.25% increase since 2009-2010 while inflation rose 16.71%
Downs said this has resulted in $154 million taxpayer dollars being redirected for vouchers that could have been utilized for students attending public schools.
The policy is shortchanging schools significantly. In a recent school year, the Wawasee School Corporation lost about $440,000, Tippecanoe Valley School Corp. lost about $280,000 and Warsaw Community Schools lost more than $1 million.
Downs is most concerned about the lack of oversight of the state’s voucher program.
Two years after the program was established, lawmakers dropped some financial reporting requirements. “Since then, there has been no financial accounting of where that $151 million goes,” Downs said. “To me, that’s the biggest deal.”
Downs has given a similar presentation on the subject to various school districts and he also made his case last winter to lawmakers in Indianapolis on two consecutive nights. Downs recalled that the first night involved a lot of aggressive questioning, while the dialogue on the second night was more “honest and open.”
“I account those two days as the most satisfying professional days in 30 years of public education,” Downs said.
Individual quibbles between districts over education funding have distracted from the bigger funding picture, he said.
He said he realizes state lawmakers are in a “tight spot” because nobody wants to see taxes rise.
“The reality is until everybody down there finds 100 voters who are willing to talk, this isn’t going to change because they’re going to assume nobody wants to raise taxes or reshuffle the budget until people talk about it.”