December 30, 2022

Steve Hinnefeld: Taxation without representation?

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Steve Hinnefeld reports from Indiana that the legislature is considering another money grab for charter schools. The traditional notion of school funding, of course, is that the taxpayers get to elect representatives who decide how the money collected for schools will be spent, but…

But look for the Indiana General Assembly to scrap that idea in its 2023 session, which begins in January. Lawmakers may require that our property taxes help pay for privately operated charter schools.

Would that amount to “taxation without representation,” the grievance that helped inspire the American Revolution? One could argue that it would.

I emailed Larry DeBoer, emeritus professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University and an expert on local government finance in Indiana, to ask if he could think of precedents for giving property taxes to entities that don’t answer to the voters. The closest he could come up with was a “mandate of funds,” in which a judge can order local government to pay for unexpected court expenses.

“Judges are elected, though, so it’s one elected body forcing another elected body to pay its expenses,” he said.

Under Indiana’s system of funding schools, the state provides money for operating expenses, such as teacher and staff salaries, on the same basis to public school districts and charter schools. But districts, unlike charter schools, can levy local property taxes to pay for buildings and transportation.

To help make up the difference, the state gives charter schools an additional $1,250 per student. Charter school advocates say that’s not enough to level the playing field. Increasingly, they have suggested their schools should get the same funding, per pupil, as public schools.

School districts – but not charter schools — can also turn to the voters to approve additional property tax funding, both for operations and buildings. Districts can share those funds with charter schools, but they don’t have to.

That’s what brought the issue to a boil. Indianapolis Public Schools officials are planning a May 2023 referendum to raise property taxes to fund the district’s Rebuilding Stronger plan. Charter schools – and there are dozens of them in the IPS district – want a significant share.

IPS says no. Charter advocates have a few options, from trying to defeat the property tax increase  out of spite, or using their legislative friends to cut them in on the deal.

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