Monday, May 18, 2020

South Bend Yes!

cover photo, Image may contain: outdoor, possible text that says 'The greatest threat to public education is to assume someone else will save it.'

Our legislature has been derelict in its duties, asleep at the wheel, or perhaps worse.

You will hear that it spends a huge proportion of state revenues on K-12 education funding. This used to be called public education funding, but it has morphed into funding for Charter Schools and private school vouchers as well. One might also argue the “huge proportion” merely reflects how little it invests in other needs; roads, bridges, public transportation, higher education, and the like. But to put it in perspective, Indiana currently ranks 36th in the nation in per pupil expenditure (PPE). In 2004-05 Indiana ranked 13th.  That’s how far we have fallen.

Historically, school funding has most often been derived from property taxes. This has led to many inequities. At first blush, having the state collect and disburse these monies would seem to address this problem. But the devil is always in the details.

Although the funds were pooled, they were still based upon property tax revenue. That pool shrank when the so-called Circuit Breaker measure was adopted.  And to make sure that it would be extraordinarily difficult to make adjustments should problems arise (as they have) the measure was quickly enshrined into the state Constitution. Facing this steadily decreasing funding, Indiana school corporations find themselves back where they started.  Gaps must be filled by local property tax levies.

Why did this happen?

The Hoosier legislature is fixated on austerity.  It’s never the plan to explore increasing revenue to address urgent issues.  It’s always the plan to “teach them to make do with less”.  This policy has led to our decreased standard of living, higher infant mortality, decreased lifespans, etc. But there’s something else at work, too.

There are folks who want public education to fail - either because of ideology or profit incentives. Their goal is to choke down funding, de-professionalize teaching, and end the meager union protections left to teachers and staff.  They block public accountability to private and charter schools, allow exceptions for charters in the state grading system, allow charters to buy school corporation buildings for $1 – all strategies to weaken traditional public schools. Like all opportunistic feeders, they only succeed if someone else fails.

Charter schools typically contract for services.  Food service, maintenance, etc. are performed by for-profit companies (often owned by the same folks who run the school) which are often closely held chains.  The major expense for these companies is labor.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to what this means for employees.

A local example has recently emerged – a group I’ll refer to as South Bend No.  These happen to be some of the folks behind the only currently operating charter schools (Success and Career Academies) in South Bend. They claim that they want the public schools and their students to succeed, but if that were the case you might think they would leave it up to citizens to decide for themselves as to the merits of the referenda. Instead, they have real skin in the game to defeat it; including a full-time staffer, a hired media company, yard signs, and the like.

They claim great results in their schools, but they leave out some details.  Due to poor performance, Career Academy’s original sponsor Ball State dropped them.  They were able to attract a more compliant Trine University to take over.  By eventually splitting into three schools, they were not only afforded a reset of state accountability, they also are qualified to apply for three nearly $1M federal “charter expansion grants” (administered by the state). We don’t know much else about their finances because they are not subject to public review.  But the main point is that they play with different rules than your public schools.

I’m voting in favor of the referenda.  Our community cannot prosper without an effective public school system that can offer a variety of learning and growth opportunities for our young residents.  SBCSC has made some impressive strides given the conditions it operates under, but if we don’t stop the bleeding the patient will die. We clearly can’t count on the state to do what’s right.  It has to be us.

Don Wheeler hosts the Facebook page Michiana Advocates For Public Education and serves on the Finance Advisory Committee of the South Bend Empowerment Zone.

What do you think it symbolizes?