Tuesday, March 15

They're Not Left Behind If We Can Still Find 'Em With Binoculars, Right?

Let's start with a little history.

In the mid 1960s Indianapolis Republicans gained control of both the mayor's office (now-Senator Richard Lugar) and the City Council. One party control gave them the opportunity to ramrod a plan which had been kicked about for years: extending the city limits to the borders of surrounding Marion country.

The reasons most talked about for the move were the increased efficiency, reduction of costs, and elimination of redundant and sometimes competing authority. The reason most whispered about was white flight. White voters had been moving to the suburbs for more than a decade. Now those votes were available to keep Republicans in control for another thirty years.

A few of the old inefficiencies were left in place. The county sheriff's department was left intact because no one could solve the political wrangling. Two other areas left untouched had more ominous overtones: school districts and taxing bodies. Here Indianapolis left in place the old township system. Live in Indianapolis, work in Indianapolis, send your children to public schools--but not necessarily Indianapolis public schools. Pay your property taxes to support not all children of your fair city, but a portion.

In 1969 the federal government sued the city over racial segregation of its schools. The court eventually found that the state had contributed to segregation by creating a unified governing structure while keeping school districts separate and by locating all public housing inside the old city limits, and ordered students bused into white districts to achieve racial balance. As defendant in the case the Indianapolis public schools were forced to foot the costs of student education and transportation. A settlement of the case was finally approved in 1998 and busing is being phased out as students complete their education at schools where they began. The agreement was fought by the township schools, which had grown fond of diversity--and the monies those minority students brought in.

Time marches on. So has white flight--out beyond the county lines. There are still eleven different school districts inside the city of Indianapolis. Democrats now control city offices, but they would be powerless to end the township system even were they to show some desire to do so. The township schools have become more integrated as the old barriers to integrated neighborhoods have crumbled.

And Indianapolis Public Schools? They're becoming increasingly black and Hispanic and increasingly poor. IPS, surrounded by much better off districts, is one of two districts in the state where more than 80% of the students qualify for federal free or reduced lunch programs, and one of two where 80% qualify for free textbooks. It's one of three districts where more than 50% of the students live in single-parent homes. Eleven percent do not live with their families. Nearly one percent are estimated to be homeless. One out of ten non-English speaking students in the state attend IPS schools.

So, just the sort of students our new focus on educational excellence is going to help, right? Well, funny thing. The state's got this little budget crisis. Plenty of blame to go around for it, at least some of which should fall on Mitch Daniels, former Bush administration OMB director, which is why he was elected governor. He also got something his Democratic predecessors didn't--his party controls both houses of the legislature. And Mitch made immediately balancing the budget his top priority. So schools have been hard hit. The new budget will cost IPS $18M over the next two years.

But we're all in the same boat, right? Share the pain. Except the legislature adopted a formula which actually penalizes school districts more for the students they lose than it awards them for the students they have. Not by a small amount; the difference in 2006 will be 30%. And guess which district just happens to contain 40% of the total charter school students in the state and plans on opening more at fire sale rates? Gee, you have been paying attention all this time.

The budget did create an index to aid districts which serve the greatest number of children at risk of academic failure. Somehow, though, the monies allocated will not cover the costs of state-mandated services.

And that wealthy district to the northeast, the one ranked #6 in per capita income in the state? They're upset because they can't build a new football stadium.


Anonymous said...

Oy. And here in Los Angeles there's persistent talk of breaking up the (large, unwieldy, unresponsive, overwhelmed) school district into smaller districts. Perhaps those folks should study Indianapolis' unhappy example.

James Briggs Stratton "Doghouse" Riley said...

The LA school system is a monumental mess, from what littleI know about it, and I'm not sure anything is ever gonna straighten it out. Curious, though, that the anti-public education crowd never uses it as an example as its failures are largely political and can't be hung on teachers' unions.