When the Indiana Legislature returns to work in 2011, lawmakers will face a fiscal mess similar to those in most other states across the nation. But the outcome of November’s elections has changed the political face of the state capitol and could have far-reaching implications for school reform.
Indiana enters its next legislative session with Republicans now in control of both houses of the General Assembly, the governorship, and the state Department of Education.
Faced with a projected $1 billion budget deficit as they enter the biennial budget session, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and state legislators will face numerous tough funding decisions as they seek to balance the budget. All parties agree education reform and overhauling the state’s school funding mechanism are key to putting the state’s fiscal house back in order.
Elementary and secondary education funding account for approximately half of the state’s annual budget since the state took over the bulk of K-12 funding in 2008, when local property taxes were eliminated from education funding and replaced with revenue from the state’s sales tax.
Indiana Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett says the state’s current financial situation provides a “golden opportunity” to look at educational funding in tandem with reforming educational policy.
“How we fund schools has been a separate discussion from education policy and what goes on in schools,” explained Bennett. “This has caused our state to make funding decisions that have had no impact on what drives student performance.”
Bennett cited as a prime example of such disconnected spending a 25-year-old provision within the state’s funding formula known as the “de-ghoster.” The provision provides funding for a school after a student leaves for three years, at a decreasing rate. In 2009 the “de-ghoster” paid to educate 16,315 students no longer enrolled in their districts, at a cost of $94 million.
“There is no proof the ‘de-ghoster’ drives any type of student performance,” Bennett said. “We could have almost paid for full-day kindergarten or funded more innovation grants for schools with that $94 million.”
“We can’t continue to pour money into programs that do not produce results,” he said.
Workforce Development Touted
State Rep. Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis) says improving the quality of education in Indiana will help improve the state’s fiscal climate.
“We need to improve our education systems to improve the quality of our graduates,” explained Behning. “A better educated workforce will attract the types of businesses to Indiana that will be able to weather future downturns in the economy. This will help improve Indiana’s fiscal climate well into the future.”
Behning, the incoming majority chairman of the state House Education Committee, agrees with Bennett about the need to tie educational funding to student performance. He says the legislature should give local schools greater flexibility to implement policies aimed at improving student performance.
“Greater flexibility is one of the factors that have allowed charter schools to be engines of reform within our public school system,” said Behning.
“Traditional public school principals and superintendents should have the flexibility to make sure they are able to have the best and brightest teachers in their schools, to be able to put the best teams in place to help students get the best achievement possible,” he said.
Labor Reform Eyed
Behning and Bennett both say the state’s collective bargaining law, known as State Law 217, is a major obstacle to providing local schools with the flexibility necessary to focus on decisions that would drive results for children.
“Schools have so many different regulations, state rules, and federal guidelines imposed on them that require them to do things that just do not impact student performance,” said Bennett. “Collective bargaining hamstrings school leadership from providing student-centered programs that produce results.”
“All across Indiana there are ridiculous provisions in place due to teacher union collective bargaining agreements,” Bennett continued. “From what days faculty can and cannot meet to one that determines matters of seniority for two employees hired on the same day by adding up the last four digits of their social security numbers.”
“Too often these provisions stand in the way of teachers and school leaders being able to focus on students,” he said.
Choice ‘On the Table’
Bennett and Behning both say all choice options have to be on the table next year. The governor, state schools superintendent, and leaders from the House and Senate have been meeting regularly to outline the education agenda for 2011, Behning says.
Some of the education reform items on their agenda include expanding the number of authorizers for charter schools; expanding the virtual schools pilot program that was started in 2008; increasing the amount of funding available to the state’s tuition tax credit program; and providing state-funded grants to students attending schools deemed to be failing, for use at the school of their choice, including private and parochial schools.
Last year, state lawmakers started down this path by passing legislation allowing students unhappy with their schools to transfer into a neighboring district without having to pay tuition.
“The end goal,” said Bennett, “is that money should follow the child, not the institution.”
“Parents deserve to have options available to them to find a school that best fits their child’s individual educational needs,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis. “We are excited that school choice initiatives will receive due consideration as part of the educational debate during the 2011 legislative session.”
Andrew LeFevre ([email protected]) is president and CEO of the Arizona Choice in Education Foundation.