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DOUG ROSS: Charter schools want property tax equivalent

DOUG ROSS: Charter schools want property tax equivalent

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If the political fight over education policy in Indiana makes you sick, grab your air sickness bag. It's going to get even more fierce.

If you follow the dollar, it should be obvious that while schools were once a local responsibility, they now are clearly a state responsibility.

Muddling this understanding, however, is the continued property tax support for local school districts.

Here's a quick, oversimplified explanation: The state covers the operating costs of schools, including salaries set by local school boards. What other state employees — at least, that's where the money for their salaries come from — have their wages set locally?

The property tax levied by school districts pays for the buildings and transportation costs. That tax pays debt service, maintenance and other capital costs.

If you now understand that difference, you're ready to understand one of the next big battlegrounds in Indiana — defining "equitable funding," which might or might not include providing state funding for charter schools' capital costs.

Betsey Wiley, CEO of Hoosiers for Quality Education, and I spoke by phone Monday about her organization's legislative agenda after poor weather cancelled two attempts to meet in person.

Wiley has gravitas; she was former Gov. Mitch Daniels' deputy chief of staff.

One of the ways Wiley and HQE define "equitable funding" is to give charter schools the same type of capital funding that property tax funding provides to traditional public schools. It's one possible way to sweeten the pot for charter school operators.

That's going to be a huge red flag for the public school supporters, and for good reason.

In Indiana, charter schools are concentrated in urban areas like Northwest Indiana, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. "They won't pop up in places where they aren't needed," Wiley said.

But they will pop up where they will be profitable. Right now, that's in areas where per-pupil funding is high.

"But we do think there are places across the state that do need more competition," Wiley said.

Gov. Mike Pence seems to agree. In his State of the State address Tuesday, Pence called for more funding for private schools and charter schools.

"Now, my philosophy of executive leadership is pretty simple; you set big goals, offer solutions, but stay open to other ideas about how to achieve them," Pence said.

"With that approach in mind, and with more than 100,000 kids in underperforming or failing schools, we must make it our aim to have 100,000 more students enrolled in high-quality schools by the year 2020."

Pence's budget proposal boosts K-12 funding, but a disproportionate chunk goes to charter schools and school vouchers. It's easy to see where this is headed.

Whether the Indiana General Assembly sets aside capital funding for charter schools remains to be seen. Keep in mind, though, that a charter school can purchase a closed public school for just $1 under state law.

Also, keep in mind that no one has talked yet about closer scrutiny to determine whether Indiana is spending its education dollars on high-quality charter or private schools. In many cases, yes — but not all.

But that hasn't stopped the push to obtain the equivalent of property tax funding for charter schools — "not create a new tax by any stretch of the imagination," Wiley said, but to provide some type of facilities fund for charters.

"We're not asking that those local property tax dollars follow the student," Wiley said. But if it comes from the same pot as the operating funds for traditional public schools, there will be a loud outcry.

If you see Indiana as being at war over education policy, this is one of the battles. It won't determine who wins and who loses the war, but it will be a key battle.

Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Follow him at and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.


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