Saturday, April 22, 2006

ISTA Lawsuit Attacks School Funding

Last week, the same time that Pres. Bush was in Silicon Valley expressing concerns that the United States was falling behind other nations in technology research, the Indiana State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming insufficient funding to educate its public school students.

Bush was touting the same science and technology plan that he revealed during his State of the Union Address in January. It’s difficult to believe he’s paying anything more than lip service to what sounds like a good idea.

After all, this is the same president who has barred federal funding for the most promising kind of stem cell research and who seems to have endorsed teaching Christian mythology in science classes. But at least he’s talking the talk, even if no one in the government is walking the walk just yet.

And one of the problems to walking the walk is that both the federal and state governments are mandating educational programs that they have not funded. And, at least in Indiana, the funding formula is so bizarre and unfair that it needs a complete and utter overhaul to make it right.

That’s the reason for the lawsuit filed by ISTA. It claims Indiana’s school funding formula not only provides for insufficient funds to educate Hoosier youngsters, but that those from poorer neighborhoods are really getting shafted educationally.

But it doesn’t take a highly-trained educator to clearly see that not all of Indiana’s school children are receiving an adequate education. School funding distribution is far from equitable.

There are suburban schools in upper middle class neighborhoods that do fairly well educating their students. And there may be a number of reasons for this. Among those reasons is that these schools receive the most state funding.

Then there are schools in poorer communities and neighborhoods where kids attend classrooms with no air conditioning, limited resources, and are equipped with stone-age facilities.

In Indiana, schools are funded in part by property taxes. But it is the local property taxes that help determine how much money a school will get. So schools in communities with older homes, a lot of rental property, and few businesses don’t collect as much tax as schools in wealthier communities.

So, on the one hand, little Johnny who comes from a middle-class neighborhood, gets to go to a school with teachers who are paid a decent salary and classrooms that are equipped with clean, new facilities. He gets to learn in a climate controlled environment and is provided with all the educational supplies to make his learning experience bearable.

On the other side of the tracks, however, little Susie comes from a poor family and attends an older run-down building with creaky floors, no air conditioning, a radiator in her classroom that makes an annoying hissing sound all day, and where she has to share limited classroom supplies with her peers. Teachers in Susie’s school lack motivation, not only because of the decrepit learning environment, but also because they don’t get paid well.

This is the reality of education in Indiana. And it is a clear violation of our state constitution that guarantees equal education for all students.

Instead of dolling out money to schools commensurate with the wealth of the community, the state should set minimum standards for facilities and the learning environment. It should then fund schools based on the size of their school population without regard to the tax base of the community.

It might be expensive bringing sub-standard schools up to code, but it would be well worth it in the long run. One of the reasons for the disparity in education is that education is not a high priority for lawmakers who control the purse strings.

They need to realize that education is the most important investment in our future that we can make. It has to be priority number one, and it isn’t.

Hopefully, the ISTEP lawsuit will make it so. But it will take years to happen.

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