LAGRANGE — Southwest Allen School Superintendent Dr. Phil Downs spent Monday evening at Lakeland, trying to help demystify public education funding and talked about how the state school voucher system has penalized smaller, rural school systems like Lakeland, Prairie Heights, and Westview.
Downs has spent the last couple of years digging deep into the state’s complex school funding formula. Even though Southwest Allen is one of the region’s more affluent school districts, Downs was active and vocal on the topic because voucher use has an impact even on more well-to-do districts.
His speech was conveniently timed, occurring a day before Tuesday’s huge Red for Ed teacher rally in Indianapolis. Statewide, teachers are taking part in the movement pushing for better wages, better funding and other reforms to the state’s education system.
“Indiana is in the business of educating children, taking care of poor kids, with a police force, and doing a little bit of roadwork. But this is where your tax dollars go,” Downs told the crowd of about 100 at the high school auditorium as he started his discussion.
In his talk, which he calls “Follow the Money,” Downs breaks down the state’s education budget. Downs has been traveling to school districts around the state this year delivering his talk.
“Let’s see what we’re buying,” he told the LaGrange County audience.
Downs maintains that his research shows the school voucher program took away nearly $1 million in funding from LaGrange County’s three school systems last year alone, despite the fact that vouchers aren’t being used by local students. Instead, that money is used to fund education for students at private schools in larger metropolitan areas like Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
Downs said one of the biggest myths about school vouchers is that students use that program to escape failing public schools. The program was touted as giving children and their parents a choice in education. Indiana educates more than 1 million students a year, yet according to the state’s own numbers, only 274 students statewide used the vouchers to leave a failing school system. Lawmakers have changed the original requirements that students needed to have first attended public school to qualify for a voucher. Downs said state statistics show nowadays that 57% of all vouchers used in Indiana fund education for students who have never attended a single day in a public school.
Looking inside the state’s budget, Downs said while education funding is up in Indiana, it hasn’t been keeping up with other state programs or the rate of inflation. While the state has managed to grow its general fund by more than 21% in nine years, the money allocated for education in that same period has been growing at a slower rate, only about 13%. That means funding for education falls below the rate of inflation.
Downs told his audience context is important.
“Big numbers always seem big until you break them down, and small numbers seem small until you work them out,” he added.
According to Downs, that decreased education funding coupled with the money being moved to fund vouchers is hurting small communities across the state.
“If Indiana’s goal is to fund the education of every child, that is an admirable goal. It just needed to be funded,” he said.
Downs said his research has shown the vouchers program is hurting most communities in Indiana. While voucher usage is more common in larger cities, he argues that the financial effect of the voucher program is felt in every school district because those dollars come out of the tuition support portion of the budget – money used to fund local schools — reducing the dollars supporting students in all public schools.
“The impact of the voucher program is not based on how many vouchers are used in your district. It is based on each year’s voucher program cost to the tuition support portion of the budget across the state, regardless of the number of vouchers used within the district,” Downs said on his website. “Currently there are 20 school districts where no vouchers are used. They are small districts and the voucher program costs them over $4 million this year combined.”
In addition, moving money away from Lakeland, Prairie Heights and Westview, Downs said DeKalb Central schools have lost last year alone more than $35,000 in school funding, Fremont lost $146,382, Hamilton lost $63,522 and MSD Steuben lost $387,548.
Downs maintained that vouchers ultimately hurt small rural economies because they take away dollars from those school systems that could have been used to pay for teacher raises and increased programming. Since there are so few vouchers students in most of these areas, money that might have been spent supporting local business and families is lost to those economies.