Provide equitable treatment of all students

Informed decision making in the interest of ALL students.

Goal #9 – Making Decisions That Provide Equitable Treatment to ALL Students

 Aristotle once said, “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”  One of the most important goals for Indiana leaders entrusted with caring for ALL Hoosier children is to work diligently to create a set of policies, laws and budgets that attempt to do just this.  Together, we must realize that every child does not need the same thing, and that costs for educating children vary based upon the unique set of circumstances each child brings through the schoolhouse gate. 

 For example, large concentrations of poverty create an additional layer of challenges that many urban and rural school districts face that are not found in typical suburban districts, or private schools for that matter.  This goal focuses on equitability…not to be confused with doing the exact same thing for every Hoosier child.

 The 20th century book “A Theory of Justice” by political philosopher John Rawls speaks to social justice through “Justice as Fairness”.  In this work, Rawls introduces a concept known as the “difference principle”.  In an oversimplified summary, this principle speaks to the concept of regulating inequalities through a focus on actions that work to the advantage of the “worst-off”. 

 Recent education reform movements in Indiana have had the opposite impact. While being sold by legislators as a means to provide Hoosier schoolchildren with educational choice, recent changes to Indiana’s voucher program have actually had a negative fiscal impact on public school districts.  The voucher program has begun to advantage those it was never intended to help. 

 Consider the Indiana Department of Education’s 2016 Choice Scholarship Program (vouchers) Annual Report.   Since Indiana’s legislators have changed the rules for receiving a voucher, while adding several pathways to do so, the percent of minority students utilizing school choice (vouchers) compared to white students has dropped dramatically.  From 2011 to 2015, the change in percent of voucher use, by ethnicity is cause for concern: White +14.47%, Black -10.9%, Hispanic -2.08%, and Multiracial -1.28%,

 In summary, Indiana’s national model for school reform through school choice, which was marketed to help students most in need while saving the State money, has increased in cost for the State of Indiana ($131 million in 2015), resulting in a diversion of funds from public education to private education in the form of vouchers.  The costs for vouchers exceeded all promised savings ($53 million diverted from public schools in 2015).  Also in 2015, for the first time in the history of the Choice Scholarship Program, more than half the students taking a voucher never attended a public school (though this originally was a requirement).

 All these data related to school choice in Indiana indicate a serious trend for our State: Indiana’s vouchers are creating inequity amongst our students and diverting much-needed funds from public educational institutions designed to serve all.  Couple this inequity with other funding changes in public education and the situation looks even more dire.

 Indiana’s elected leaders implemented Performance Award grants of approximately $30 million annually in recent years.  These grants are designated for teacher pay (usually given as a one-time stipend) based on student performance.  Of course, student performance often is correlated to socio-economic status.  Therefore, the State Legislature has created a category of funding that gives more money to schools that are generally suburban and less diverse, with less poverty.  How much more?  The 2014 Performance Awards granted more than $1.1 million to Carmel, $1.1 million to Hamilton Southeastern, $.5 million to Noblesville, and proportional amounts based on enrollments to districts with similar demographics. 

 Aside from creating vouchers that have reduced public school funding where it is most needed and creating one-time grant dollars that disproportionately benefit districts based on socio-economic status, the State Legislature came through with a major initiative to actually reduce the existing funding levels for districts that generally had the highest poverty. 

 When Indiana’s legislature was considering a change to the complexity index, I challenged some State leaders to consider the impact this could have on Indiana’s minority population.  The complexity index historically has provided additional money to school districts based on a formula measuring the district’s overall poverty.  The informed thinking behind the complexity index was that it costs more to educate students living in poverty; this practice has worked for many states and is utilized frequently as a means of providing more equitable treatment of students.

 In 2015, the State legislature removed $250 million in funding for public school districts based on poverty and shifted it to the foundation, thus providing the greatest benefit to students in wealthier, suburban districts.  When I asked about the impact this would have on minority students, including students of color, I was informed that this wasn’t about race; and further, race was not reviewed as a variable because it wasn’t part of the consideration, or justification, for changing the formula.  It should have been!  And it should be!  Sobering statistics from this change in the formula:

  • *Prior to      2015, the 20 school districts that received the most funding had an average A-F      grade of a “C” with 75% of their students living in poverty and 54% of their      student population self-described as being “non-white”.
  • *Prior to      2015, the 20 school districts that received the least funding had an average      A-F grade of an “A” with only 19% of their students living in poverty and less      than 16% of their student population self-described as being “non-white”.
  • *From 2015      to 2016, for districts with greater than a 50% minority population (a majority      minority district), the total funding loss      was more than $13 million.
  • *From 2015      to 2016, for districts with less than a 20% population of minority students,      the total funding increase was more      than $45 million.

 Clearly, this information must be considered when crafting new laws and funding formulas.

 Indiana leaders have continued to demonstrate through their actions a propensity for treating students equally rather than equitably.  Many State leaders have ignored the staggering statistics that demonstrate a funding shift to suburban, mostly-white districts at the expense of school districts with higher poverty and a higher percentage of minority students.  Passing such legislation without intentionally studying the impact these recent changes were going to have on minority students and children of poverty, for example, is nothing short of discriminatory.  Operating under this “veil of ignorance” makes terrible policy sense for the long-term health of Indiana’s cities and our State.

 The English novelist Aldous Huxley once said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”  Indiana’s elected leaders MUST discontinue the practice of adopting education reform measures based on an outside think tank’s belief that such reform will work.  Furthermore, Hoosier leaders must take a more thoughtful look at past decisions that have been made; so together, we can understand whether these actions are negatively impacting a large group of Indiana’s K-12 population.

 The time is now for Indiana’s State leaders to seriously consider all the facts before continuing with “education reform” that heavily impacts Indiana’s students.  No longer can the benefit of a few outweigh the overall needs of the whole.  Indiana’s path forward requires equitable treatment of students, and this can only happen when we stop trying to make things the same.  We must stop creating stumbling blocks for many students in an effort to help a few select students.  It is time for us to understand fully the whole story and to learn completely the true impact of the decisions we make.  The stakes are too high for our students, and for our State, to act otherwise!

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