Indianapolis looks to student-based budgeting to fix school funding gaps

Commentary

Indianapolis looks to student-based budgeting to fix school funding gaps

Indianapolis could be the next city to implement portable student funding for its school district. The board is currently considering a proposal to change Indianapolis Public Schools’ (IPS) funding formula to a weighted student formula where education funding would follow each individual child directly to their school, with additional weights based on student needs. Following an increased focus on ensuring funding equity, IPS concluded an eight month preliminary survey of their schools’ budgets through the Boston-based consulting group Education Resource Strategies. The study found huge per-student funding disparities among schools with similar needs, particularly among those serving high percentages of low income students.

One of the biggest gulfs was between Crispus Attucks High School and Broad Ripple High School, both magnet schools with student bodies roughly 60 percent black and 70 percent low income. Despite these similar needs, Broad Ripple gets more than twice the per-student funding of Crispus Attucks, netting $11,581 per-student annually compared to its counterpart’s $5630. Part of the difference comes from Broad Ripple’s art programs, facilities, and higher population of special needs students. These differences aside, the per-student funding disparity between both schools is one of the largest in the district. Among two schools so similar, many see this disparity as part of a larger concerning trend about how the district allocates its resources under the status quo. You can see the preliminary data below. Notice how much more scattershot the per-student funding gets as schools percentages of low income students go up.

Without the transparency that student-based budgeting brings, it’s difficult for the public to even know that these disparities exist, let alone rectify them. IPS, like many districts, funds things like staff salaries, facilities costs, security expenses, and special programs directly out of their central budget instead of funding individual schools based on the number and needs of their students. Under the weighted student formula the IPS board seeks to adopt, individual school principals would have the freedom to make decisions about what to pursue at their schools with their resources.

Under the proposed student-based budgets, Broad Ripple would still get more per-pupil funding for its special needs students specifically, but wouldn’t automatically receive more per-pupil resources overall because of its art program, but that’s the fairest way to do it. Whether to make the arts (or STEM or any other special focus) a priority is a decision that would lie with principals, who would have the autonomy to choose what programs best filled the needs of their students. Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab put it this way, “If you want to give your kids all private music lessons at school, that’s fine,” Roza said. “You might need to have larger class sizes to pay for that or not have a vice-principal.”

Giving schools extra funding for special programs divorced from extra student needs like special education or English language simply takes away dollars that could go to other schools in the district. A weighted student formula wouldn’t just make IPS’ budgets easier to understand, it would ensure that Indianapolis’ limited resources were making the biggest impact possible for the most children.

Tyler Koteskey was an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.