Stop Telling Me About How Much Indiana Spends on Education–You Just Don't Get It

Let me say this louder for those in the back: INDIANA’S EDUCATION FUNDING PROBLEM IS NOT REALLY A BUDGET PROBLEM–IT’S A POLICY PROBLEM! Did you hear me that time? I’ve been writing about this a lot lately and, while I’m thrilled with the way my articles have been so widely read and so well received, I’ve also gotten my fair share of criticism and some downright nasty vitriol. That’s all part of the game, and it doesn’t really bother me, except when the push back is based in outright ignorance, legitimate or willful. No matter how many times I try to say it, there still seems to be an awful lot of confusion out there about the problem of public education funding. I say confusion, but it could just be deliberate deflection and misrepresentation of the roots of the problem in order to serve a political agenda. So I want to try again to lay out the cold hard facts about what the issue is and what it is not. Let’s start with what the public education funding problem is not. 

The problem isn’t to be found in the budget. Folks who continually push back against the Red for Ed movement—including Governor Holcomb—love to cite budget numbers. They love mention the impressive increases in the spending going to education. They get downright giddy when they point out that about 60% of the state’s budget goes to education and they cry “how much is enough?” as if they were in the process of being shaken down by crooks. I don’t claim to be a financial expert who knows all the ins and outs of the state budget, but I do know this; the amount of money being spent on education by the state of Indiana isn’t really the problem. It is quite possible that there is already enough money is being allocated for education as it is. Is that clear enough? Ok, so then what is the problem?

The problem is tied up in education policy that has been increasingly hostile to public schools—especially public schools in high poverty, crime, and trauma areas—over the past 15 years. The money Indiana is spending on education simply does not get to where it’s needed the most. In fact, the places where the money is needed the most are actually losing money. There have been many disastrous policy changes in the past decade and a half that have built up over the years to create this crisis in which we now find ourselves. Let me just list a few:

Property tax caps cost many districts millions of dollars in revenue each year.

When the property tax caps were frozen, almost everyone in the state thought that idea was just nifty. Guess who didn’t think it was so swell at all? School district superintendents, administrators and teachers. All those referendums that have been proposed–some passed and some defeated–are a direct result of those tax caps. Many districts immediately began to lose millions of dollars in revenue each year. Teachers began to be riffed, extra-curricular activities, clubs, some non-core classes, field trips, and a host of other programs had to be cut in order to make payroll. That tax cap was a disaster for public schools and we are still dealing with the fall out.

Local teachers’ unions had much of their collective bargaining power stripped away.

The state couched this slimy move in the guise of public transparency, but it was tantamount to a union-busting power grab. This move severely crippled teacher’s ability to negotiate in good faith for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Things have gotten steadily worse as a result.

The removal of the graduated pay scale.

The guaranteed graduated pay scales which used to give pay increases for each year of service were taken away and replaced by a standardized test performance-based formula by which teachers are judged in order to get any pay raise at all. Teachers have always had comparatively very low starting salaries and we’ve always known it going in. But it didn’t used to be such a problem because we knew we’d graduate up the pay scale with each year’s service and once we had some years under out belt, our salaries were much more reasonable. When the state of Indiana removed these pay scales, the war on public school teachers was officially declared. Teachers who teach in the most challenging schools are in the trenches of the front lines of that war and thousands are being shelled right out of the profession complete with the PTSD to show for it.

So the funding isn’t getting to where it is needed the most. Teachers in high poverty, crime, and trauma rate districts have long since seen the writing on the wall and they are leaving in droves. We need to be attracting the best and brightest teachers to those struggling schools and instead, we are driving them away. If you were put in charge of improving a state’s most struggling schools, would you try to make sure that they had all the funding they needed and attempt to do everything you could to incentivize good teachers to work there, or would you starve those teachers of any pay increase year after year and funnel money from those schools and into schools which perform better, largely due to the fact that their clientele are more privileged and less traumatized? Do you even have to think about that question? Is it not a no-brainer? Well, our state’s lawmakers choose to punish the teachers who work with our most challenging kids and those teachers clearly can’t take it any longer. Who is going to replace them and what will become of those kids?

There is your problem. Please quit telling me how much we are spending on education. 

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