January 19, 2024

Steve Hinnefeld: Indiana short-changes rural schools

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Steve Hinnefeld takes a look at a National Rural Education Association report, talks to NREA director Chris Lagoni, and finds that Indiana’s treatment of its rural schools is wanting.

The report ranks states according to how urgently their rural schools need attention, with a low number signaling improvement should be a high priority. “You don’t want to be in the top 10,” Lagoni said.

But we almost are; Indiana ranks No. 11 for urgency. It’s about average in ratings of rural diversity, educational outcomes for rural students, and the percentage of schools and districts that are rural. But it’s third worst at providing support and services for rural students. And it’s No. 1 – at the bottom – in the “educational policy context” for rural schools.

The policy category includes areas such as education spending, staff salaries and transportation funding obligations, and Indiana ranks low because of its inadequate funding of rural schools. It spends only $5,582 per pupil for instruction of rural students, the report says, ahead of only Idaho, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama and compared to a national average of $7,174. (Most data are from 2021-22).

In the category of support for student learning and development, Indiana stands out for having a ratio of 501 rural students for every school counselor and psychologist, second-highest rate in the country. But that’s not exclusively a rural problem: Statewide, Indiana has 694 students per counselor, according to the American School Counselor Association. Indiana also does poorly for rural students lacking health insurance: 9.4%, the seventh highest rate in the country.

Lagoni traced rural schools’ funding woes back a decade, to the Great Recession and the impact of “property tax reform” that shifted most funding of school operating costs to the state. There was an implicit deal, he said, that state funding would offset the loss of property tax revenue. But it hasn’t.

“Indiana has not been able to keep up with where we were in early 2000s,” Lagoni said.

Instead of consistently raising state funding, Indiana has leaned on school districts to ask voters to approve property-tax referendums to provide extra support. That’s worked in some urban and, especially, in suburban schools, but it’s been a non-starter for tax-averse rural districts. Meanwhile, Indiana has cut the education funding pie into more pieces. It funds a growing charter school sector, and it has created a nearly universal private-school voucher program that’s expected to cost $1.1 billion over two years.

“That’s the same as inviting more people over for Sunday dinner,” Lagoni said.

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