Morton Marcus: Distressed schools, diminished responsibility



Indiana public schools are in trouble.

You can blame whomever you please, but the facts remain.

Except in a few burgeoning suburbs, school enrollments are down as Hoosiers have fewer children. In larger districts, parents have turned their backs on the public schools and opted for charter or private schools. Students have become more difficult to teach for cultural, technological and economic reasons. Teaching has become less attractive as a career, with compensation and social status in relative decline.

This listing ignores the increase in curriculum standards necessitated by an explosion of knowledge and the magnified diversity of our population. Now, once-prosperous communities have declined in population and wealth.

State taxation policies have decreased local school revenues and shifted power to the Legislature. Yet no governor, mayor or legislative leader has accepted responsibility for the mess.

With fewer households having children, schools seem less important. Then we wake up and realize our adult population is not sufficiently educated to sustain competitive communities. But Indiana’s leaders only know how to deal with the fiscal side of the problem.

Enter our daubing General Assembly with DUAB (the Distressed Unit Appeal Board), whose website lists only two units whose financial distress has been addressed: the Muncie and Gary schools.

Muncie’s case apparently has been resolved and dismissed from its distressed state. This was accomplished by laying off teachers and staff, closing elementary schools, postponing some projects and refinancing outstanding debt. The teachers union was in on the process as well as others in the community.

Gary is an ongoing process now being reformulated through current House Bill 1187. That bill awaits action by the House Ways and Means Committee, headed by the bill’s author, Chairman Tim Brown.

The bill “provides that the Gary Community School Corporation is not subject to collective bargaining.” In one simple sentence, the Gary teachers’ union is sterilized.

Of the reconstituted board that will oversee the finances of the Gary Community Schools, only two members will be drawn from Gary itself. One will be appointed by the effective Mayor of Gary and the other by the often-irresponsible Gary City Council.

Gary has already closed many schools, cut the number of teachers and staff, and taken other necessary steps toward fiscal responsibility for its future. However, the loss of Gary’s commercial, industrial and residential assessed value, induced by the Indiana General Assembly, has seriously reduced the ability of the schools to finance themselves.

While Gary, Muncie and other communities may escape the designation of “distressed,” they remain tarnished for a generation to come. Both Muncie and Gary are currently engaged in efforts to restore the public’s regard for the schools.

This cannot be done by fiscal prudence alone. Both districts, and many others, need the funds and leadership for truly significant improvements in the education of our citizens.

Don’t expect the general assembly to support these efforts.

Morton Marcus is an economist. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him and John Guy on Who Gets What? wherever podcasts are available or at