Student funding solutions not clear-cut

INDIANAPOLIS — The results are in, and they are not surprising.

Months after House Republicans first said they wanted to revamp school funding, the changes have been translated into actual dollars for districts.

As expected, growing districts, those in suburban areas, receive more money under the plan, and districts in urban and rural areas that have declining enrollments and more at-risk kids are getting less.

And depending on what side of the funding debate you’re on, that could be a good thing or bad.

Democrats are chiding the GOP plan for big cuts to schools in Indianapolis and other urban settings, places where students often come to kindergarten far behind their kids in wealthier neighborhoods and spend years trying to catch up.

Republicans are touting it as good for students everywhere and one that closes the gap between the schools with the lowest per-pupil funding and the largest.

The question is whether Republicans have gone too far or have set up a system that will soon swing the pendulum too far toward students who already are achieving.

Those are tough questions to answer. And unfortunately, the debate is often between two, or several, extreme positions.

Republicans follow what they call the “money follows the child” ideal. That means the state funds schools on a per-student basis. Period. In the GOP plan, there’s no concern about how a district losing students quickly adjusts, leaving them to scrap to pay for buildings or technology that may be underutilized but still an expense.

Democrats, on the other hand, are all but obsessed with ensuring that districts don’t lose money, no matter what’s happening with enrollment. In many of the years when Democrats were in charge of school funding, they provided minimum guarantees to make sure every district received more.

But there are problems with both theories. The Democrats’ minimum guarantees meant that the per-student funding kept growing for schools with declining enrollments. Meanwhile, growing districts were getting more cash but not at a rate high enough to keep up with enrollment, which depressed their per-student funding.

That led to the gap Republicans are trying to fix.

But sticking strictly to a money-follows-the-child system ignores the reality that enrollment can fluctuate but expenses don’t change so quickly.

That problem can be exacerbated by the charter schools cropping up in largely urban areas and an ever-expanding voucher program that gives students more ways to leave schools that are struggling.

Republicans back those proposals; and, indeed, they give parents far more choices about how their children will be educated. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers should forget about the children who are left behind in districts that suddenly have fewer dollars.

As with so many other issues, neither side in this battle is all right or all wrong. But because Republicans have a crazy-big majority in both chambers, they can make policy as if they are. A bipartisan debate would still be useful.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.