This article originally appeared here, in Chalkbeat.
On paper, Crispus Attucks and Broad Ripple high schools are strikingly similar.
Both are relatively high performing magnet high schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools district.
Both serve a diverse group of students — roughly 70 percent of students in each school are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance and just over 60 percent of students in each school are black.
But there’s one big difference between the two: Money.
Broad Ripple gets a lot more of it than Crispus Attucks does.
According to a preliminary funding analysis conducted by a consultant working for IPS, Broad Ripple gets twice as much funding per student from local, state and federal governments — $11,581 per student — as its fellow Indianapolis magnet. Crispus Attucks gets just $5,630 per student.
Part of that difference can be explained by the higher percentage of students with disabilities at Broad Ripple but it’s also driven by countless other factors like the size of its building, the extra arts programs it offers and years of history in a district that has not paid much attention before to how much money goes to individual schools.
That’s all changing in IPS as the school board seeks to make funding across schools more transparent and fair.
As a first step in that process, it hired a consultant to review for the first time how schools rank in terms of funding.
The results show striking funding disparities across the district.
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee cautions that the data assembled by Boston-based consultants Education Resource Strategies is preliminary and could change before final numbers are confirmed but even this early look shows that schools that should be getting the most money — those with a high percentage of low-income, high-needs students who qualify for more federal dollars — are not consistently coming out on top.
This imbalance has likely existed for years but has been obscured behind budgeting models that grouped funds into categories such as building maintenance or school staff.
Now, it’s an inequity the district is aiming to address.
“We believe that equitable funding is necessary as we think about supporting our students and our families,” Ferebee said.
Local education leader Carole Craig has been pushing for more equitable funding in IPS for more than a decade. But even for Craig — a Crispus Attucks graduate who was once a counselor at Broad Ripple — the results are unexpected.
“Wow,” she said when told of the low per student funding is at Crispus Attucks. “I’m quite surprised that there’s that much difference between Attucks and Broad Ripple.”
The schools serving many poor kids may be worse off than it appears from this analysis because the estimate released by IPS includes federal funding, which favors schools with a high percentage of low-income students, said Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.
Districts are not supposed to give fewer local resources to schools that receive larger federal appropriations but when districts calculate their budgets, sometimes these high-needs schools get shorted, Roza said.
School funding can be opaque. The state and federal governments fund IPS based on enrollment and student needs, but the district doesn’t simply divide the money up and send it to schools. Rather, the money goes directly from the central budget to things like staff salaries and school security expenses.
The amount the district spends on each school is determined by many factors, from student needs, to special programs, to the cost of keeping the building running.
The consultant’s funding analysis, conducted over the past eight months, is aimed at laying the groundwork for a new approach to school funding that could narrow the gap between the highest and lowest funded schools. Weighted funding would distribute money to schools based on the number and needs of students enrolled and allow principals to decide how to spend that cash.
So far the analysis has led to some interesting early conclusions:
For one thing, the analyses has found that while some magnet schools are receiving more money than the district average, such as Broad Ripple, the cost of magnet programs is not a significant factor in funding differences across the district.
David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, said many magnet elementary schools in the district have higher costs because they are smaller, K-8 schools with low enrollment in each grade level — not because their special programs cost more.
The biggest predictor for whether a school is at the high or the low end of the funding scale is the size of the school and the enrollment at each grade level, he said. Across the district, he said, small schools with small grades are more expensive per student than larger schools.
Funding also varied widely based on factors that were specific to each school, he said.
“It looks to you and me as random,” he said. “The reality is there are individual cases that the district has made decisions based on the needs of those schools.”
The early numbers also shed some light on one of the issues that has been raised about weighted funding. While teachers and leaders have expressed concerns that equalizing funding would force schools to replace highly-paid, experienced teachers with lower-paid educators, the Education Resource Strategies review found that teacher pay was not a major factor in determining which schools received the most funding per pupil.
One reason is because teachers across the district tend to be more experienced and higher paid, Rosenberg said. The pay scale is also unusually narrow compared to other districts, so even the highest paid teachers are not making that much more than their junior peers.
“Teacher salary doesn’t vary enough school by school to be the driving factor,” Rosenberg said. “The number of people matters more than the dollars per person.”
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At Broad Ripple and Crispus Attucks, there are many potential factors causing the difference in funding. Ferebee said Broad Ripple, which had 908 students last year, has a larger facility, which can cost a lot to keep running, and Crispus Attucks had higher enrollment, 1,169 students, which usually reduces per student costs.
“I think that (enrollment numbers) is a driver,” Ferebee said. But he said that Broad Ripple also has a strong arts program. “I’m assuming there would be some additional expenses there as well.”
Another big difference is that Broad Ripple serves significantly more students with special needs than Crispus Attucks does. That means the 109 staff members assigned to Broad Ripple in the 2015 estimated budget includes 15 educators who serve students with disabilities — a large population at the school — and 10 art specialists who instruct students in their field.
Crispus Attucks has fewer students with special needs — 7 percent of Crispus Attucks students have special needs compared to 15 percent at Broad Ripple — and the school had just 77 staff members.
Broad Ripple’s situation illustrates that some funding disparities can be desirable — it’s generally accepted that schools should receive extra funding to serve students who grapple with extra challenges, like learning disabilities or poverty. But paying for extra staff to support special programs, like arts magnet schools, is more contentious.
Roza, the school funding expert from Georgetown, said that schools shouldn’t receive extra funding for special programs because that money comes at the expense of other schools in the district. Instead, school leaders should have the freedom to choose how they spend their budgets.
“If you want to give your kids all private music lessons at school, that’s fine,” Roza said. “You might need to have larger class sizes to pay for that or not have a vice-principal.”
But others argue that programs like art or Montessori magnet schools attract and keep families in the district. Ferebee has not made his position completely clear, but there are signs that he and some board members may be reluctant to eliminate extra funding for special programs.
“There’s lots of additional expenses associated with Montessori,” Ferebee said. “We will have recommendations around how do we protect the integrity of our choice programs as it relates to an equitable funding model.”
For her part, Craig said that she is thrilled that the district is discussing the issue of unequal school funding.
“We’ve got so many children that have not had access and opportunity for success,” she said. “It’s because they have not had the benefits at their school that have been allowed at some other schools.”