As the Indiana General Assembly begins its work today, in a budget-writing session, one of the legislators' most important jobs is to draft a school funding formula that gives strong support to Indiana's students.
Notice we say students, not schools, because this is all about educating Hoosier children.
The primary difficulty lies in determining fairness.
Under the current funding formula, school districts that perform well often get less per pupil than districts that don't perform well. The school funding formula is a Rube Goldberg contraption that takes into account all sorts of factors, including socioeconomic indicators like the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-cost lunches.
We acknowledge the correlation between socioeconomic factors and student performance. It's hard to focus on homework when you're preparing dinner for younger siblings or shivering for inadequate heat or worried about your safety.
But the school funding formula shouldn’t penalize school districts that perform well. Set a standard — and adequate — amount per child, and handle any additional aid outside the formula.
High-performing districts like School Town of Highland, School Town of Munster, Tri-Creek School Corp. and Valparaiso Community Schools receive less than the state average of $5,800 per pupil. Where's the fairness in that?
In Indiana, with arguably the broadest school voucher program in the nation, a complexity factor is the competition among traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools.
Many educators in the traditional public schools are irked that what has traditionally been their share of the pie is now being shared with private schools.
"We don't want to take away from districts like Gary, Hammond or East Chicago," said School Town of Highland Superintendent Brian Smith, who chairs the Northwest Indiana Public Schools Study Council. "They have some serious needs, and we're not knocking them for that. We don't want to take from the districts in poverty and give to the more affluent districts. We want to see more money for public education."
What we want to see most of all is the distribution of school dollars where they will be most effective.
That includes adequate funding for high-performing public schools as well as assistance in overcoming socioeconomic obstacles, such as hiring additional aides.
It also includes tighter controls on how school vouchers are distributed. Parental choice is a solid goal, but those vouchers should be limited to private schools that are performing well or showing progress toward necessary improvements.
Our children's future is too important to not get this school funding issue straightened out.