Rural schools shortchanged?

KPC News Service

The performance of our schools drives the future of our communities, according to a Ball State University expert.

“School quality matters, both for school enrollment and for local economic vitality,” said Michael Hicks a professor of economics and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, in a recent article.

Hicks reported on his study showing a clear link between population growth and school performance on Indiana’s ISTEP+ achievement tests.

Hicks knows ISTEP+ is not perfect — Indiana is racing to replace it — but it’s still the only objective way to compare school districts.

Hicks’ study adds weight to the importance of funding our schools fairly. Two weeks ago, this newspaper published our reporters’ extensive series of stories examining how schools receive money from the state budget.

Among our findings: Recent changes to school funding meant high-poverty schools got smaller funding increases than schools in wealthier communities. In our area, that hurt West Noble and Lakeland schools, if not more, our stories revealed.

It’s too early to analyze how Indiana’s new school budget shakes out — legislators passed it Friday — but one local superintendent voiced his fears last week. Preliminary numbers showed DeKalb Eastern schools, based in Butler, would be “suffering” under the next budget. Already behind the average, it would fall farther back.

DeKalb Eastern is not necessarily an impoverished school district. It might be described as an average rural district.

DeKalb Eastern Superintendent Jeff Stephens said he checked with other school districts in the area. “According to some of the other superintendents, we are worse than most, but everybody seems to be on the decline,” Stephens reported.

That raises fears that the next school budget formula works against rural districts in general — not just against high-poverty districts.

Moving forward, our senators and representatives from northeast Indiana need to resist the trend that is sending bigger increases to affluent school districts than to rural schools.

In the past, suburban districts complained about their lower per-student funding. They got less money because with easier-to-educate students, they needed it less, but they still objected. Their legislators listened and rewrote the rules.

With even more evidence about the importance of quality schools to our communities, legislators from northeast Indiana need to fight as effectively for our school districts as suburban lawmakers are working for theirs.