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State needs to ensure funding for FWCS, all other is equitably distributed

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - 6:54 am

A fairly straightforward meeting Monday night of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board turned complex quickly when district Chief Financial Officer Kathy Friend explained how FWCS has, to be blunt, repeatedly been shortchanged in receiving its fair share of state funding per student.

Consider it through the prism of "no good deed goes unpunished." For many years - Friend provided data dating back to 2007 - FWCS operated underneath what was described as the "foundation." It meant that, when factoring in issues like complexity (how the state assesses districts based on the number of students who receive free and reduced lunches, which is one snapshot metric of poverty), FWCS was actually receiving less money per student than it actually should have, by law.

State legislators realized that there were numerous districts around the state that were operating in such a fashion, or in numerous other cases, were receiving more money per student than entitled. That was meant to be addressed over a period of years as each district was supposed to either transition up or down in order to be at foundation; FWCS' transition, like others, was to be from 2007-2011.

However, the economic woes of the nation actually caused state legislators to reduce the foundation amount - and someone doesn't have to be a mathematician to figure out that was going to be painful on any number of levels. But since the state's public school districts were transitioning either up or down, that meant districts transitioning down were going to take even larger decreases than foreseen. Districts transitioning up? Those were in slightly better shape because at least they were at foundation.

Here's where it starts to get truly painful for FWCS and other districts that were at foundation: State legislators created what they called "restoration grants," to be awarded in 2010 and 2011, which were provided to those districts who were above foundation and transitioning down, in order to cushion their fall.

Yes, in words, that makes sense. But in practice, this is not an equitable distribution of state educational funding.

Bottom line: No one likes to see students reduced to a financial rate. It can be dehumanizing and it certainly doesn't adequately explain what other advantages and disadvantages exist in the real world.

But no one should pretend that educational funding doesn't matter, and a large urban district like FWCS shouldn't be getting less dollars per student than any district, in any case. Because those dollars are needed to maintain such a large operation. Things like building maintenance and repairs and bus replacements, as well as compensation for teachers, have to be funded adequately.

As district superintendent Wendy Robinson said succinctly about funding inequality, "We're not pitiful enough to get help, but we have enough challenges where we need help."

That statement is more true than people realize. Again, it shouldn't be all about money...but in many crucial ways, it is. Because with some of the challenges that a large district faces in an urban setting, a community has to have a strong public school system because that's where the vast majority of students are going to go.

School choice is the law of the land, and that means there are options, parochial or charter or homeschooling, where students can be educated. At the same time, as Robinson correctly noted, the 30,000-plus FWCS students cannot all go to parochial or charter schools in the city, because there isn't nearly enough capacity.

The public has a right to expect each school district to utilize its resources adequately and wisely. At the same time, those resources need to be distributed fairly across districts around the state - state legislators need to ensure that the foundation numbers are not being "target adjusted" - so communities can rest assured that as many kids as possible are being given the same opportunities as others.

The world isn't always fair, and there are reasons for that. But one of those reasons shouldn't be per-student funding that isn't equitable.

Robinson and Friend explained that FWCS is attempting to explain those differences and discrepancies to legislators, either in person or through their lobbyist, which is how the process works. It will likely take time for those efforts to bear fruit, with regard to state funding methodology, but it is certainly worth the time and attention of all.

Notes

Friend also explained how the state's voucher program is impacting the district, with she and Robinson noting that the state law is proving to be a significant challenge for the district with regard to implementation. The district, for instance, could easily be losing students to vouchers - meant to allow students to apply their state funding toward tuition for private or parochial schools - from some of its highest-rated schools, which, while still legal, would not seem to be the original intent of the legislation. Vouchers were originally explained as a mechanism to allow parents to remove their child from buildings that were struggling far more than a highly-rated school.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Elbert Starks III at estarks@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8266.