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Indiana superintendents rail against proposed school funding changes

A panel of three high-profile Indiana superintendents Thursday criticized the state for not spending enough on traditional public schools and especially high-poverty schools.

The three — Fort Wayne’s Wendy Robinson, West Lafayette’s Rocky Killion and Lewis Ferebee of Indianapolis Public Schools — said during a conversation organized by IUPUI’s College of Education and moderated by Chalkbeat Bureau Chief Scott Elliott that legislators should recognize the tougher job poor schools have to prepare their children to graduate ready for college or careers.

“The state is trying to act as if I don’t need different resources for that high school in the high-poverty area,” Robinson said. “The standards I set for the students I receive is the same. We treat our kids in poverty like it’s their fault. … That’s the fallacy of the (state funding) formula.”

With the state legislature heading into the last week of its annual session, the budget remains unsettled and an effort to  overhaul school funding has left districts with many poor children — like Fort Wayne and IPS — in danger of losing millions of dollars in aid.

Killion, Indiana’s superintendent of the year, said he was disappointed the budget process has pitted more wealthy districts like West Lafayette against poor districts.

“We have some winning in public schools at the expense of others, and that’s wrong,” Killion said. “I don’t want to accept more money in my school district if it’s going to be at the expense of IPS. … My population is different.”

Instead, Robinson said, public schools should fight back against alternatives the state has embraced like public funding for private school tuition vouchers, often for religious-based schools.

“While we’re fighting over these pennies, the real shift in education is toward funding religious education,” she said. “We’re supposed to be grateful that one of us gets a little more money than the others. We’re not having the right conversation.”

But Ferebee, who has advocated for collaborating with charter schools instead of competing with them, said the focus needs to be on improving the lowest-performing schools in the highest-need neighborhoods. He said public schools and charter schools should be thinking about how they can work together to maximize every dollar handed out by the state.

“Less of the debate needs to be about who’s better, who’s worse,” Ferebee said. “Are we truly doing the job we need to do to prepare our students? We can’t say we’re doing that across the district. Poverty is going up in Indianapolis.”