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Higher student spending doesn’t necessarily mean better test scores

Gary Community School Corp. offices. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

Gary Community School Corp. offices. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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School Spending

Schools in Indiana no longer are funded by local property taxes but instead receive funding from the state based on their enrollment. Schools can receive extra money through a variety of factors, such as the number of students who do not pass the ISTEP. Some districts can receive additional federal support. In 2010, Northwest Indiana school districts spent anywhere from almost $8,000 on instructional spending per student to almost $4,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s compared to 2010 ISTEP passage rates ranging from 41 to 87 percent:

Gary Community Schools — $7,729 42 percent passed

School City East Chicago — $6,329 41 percent passed

Lake Central School Corp — $5,958 80 percent passed

Lake Ridge Schools — $5,809 47 percent passed

School City Hammond — $5,660 50 percent passed

Lake Station Community Schools — $5,123 61 percent passed

School City of Whiting — $5,029 60 percent passed

Valparaiso Community Schools — $4,861 83 percent passed

School Town of Munster — $4,842 76 percent passed

River Forest Community School Corp. — $4,793 58 percent passed

Boone Township M.S.D. — $4,704 78 percent passed

Griffith Public Schools — $4,685 72 percent passed

Merrillville Community School Corp. — $4,630 60 percent passed

Union Township School Corp. — $4,526 80 percent passed

Duneland School Corp. — $4,315 76 percent passed

Porter Township School Corp. — $4,293 79 percent passed

East Porter County School Corp. — $4,286 84 percent passed

School Town of Highland — $4,257 77 percent passed

Crown Point Community Schools — $4,253 87 percent passed

Portage Township Schools — $4,171 75 percent passed

School City of Hobart — $4,139 68 percent passed

Hanover Central Community Schools — $3,991 73 percent passed

Tri-Creek School Corp. — $3,822 73 percent passed

Updated: October 29, 2012 6:01AM



Students in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond public schools have long struggled to meet state standardized test scores, often posting some of the lowest passing averages in the region.

However, data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that those school districts have spent some of the most of any district in Lake and Porter counties on instruction, versus money spent on general and school administration.

Gary Community School Corp. spent $7,729 per pupil on instruction in 2010, leading all the school districts and $1,400 more than the next school district, School City of East Chicago.

Lake Ridge Schools and School City of Hammond ranked fourth and fifth, and they all spent more on instruction than the state average of $5,594.

Officials disagree, however, on whether the data show the problems facing these schools are still related to funding or whether they come from deeper socio-economic issues in their urban communities.

The only other school district in Northwest Indiana to spend more than the state average was Lake Central School Corp., which had 80 percent of students pass the ISTEP in 2010.

Urban experiences different

Despite the money Gary spent in 2010 on instruction, just 42 percent of students passed the ISTEP that year, with Roosevelt High School being placed on probation. The state eventually took over Roosevelt because of its lack of progress.

Sarita Stevens, spokeswoman for the district, said the district faces problems others in suburban areas don’t have.

She raised the issue of how test questions are phrased and argued that some of them can be hard for urban students to understand when they haven’t had the same experiences as suburban children.

“It’s not that all inner-city children are stupid,” she said. “It’s [more like], does that test make sense to them?”

Lake Ridge Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley also argued that her students face problems other students don’t, such as starting kindergarten further behind or struggling to figure out how to get to school each day.

Lake Ridge spent $5,809 per student on instruction in 2010. However, 47 percent of students in the district passed the ISTEP that year, third lowest in the region.

“We’re not on equal ground,” she said.

Johnson-Shirley also argued that her school district has since improved its scores, with 55 percent of students passing the ISTEP in 2011 and 60 percent passing in 2012, while at the same time cutting money from its budget.

How is the money spent?

Money, or rather how the money is spent, could still be an issue, Stephanie Sample, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said.

Sample said school districts considered successful put their money toward programs that are shown to work. She also said a district that has academic problems across all of its schools likely has systematic problems in its administration.

“Good school districts, school districts that are successful, have really successful leaders in place,” Sample said. “They have superintendents who know how to deal with money; they have principals who know what good instruction looks like.”

For Gary, she said, the census data could point to the district needing to look at how it spends its money, considering it is spending the most per student on instruction with low passing scores to show for it.

Stevens said the district has since installed a new program that continually tracks how students are doing, so teachers can quickly catch those who aren’t keeping up and help them. The program will likely take some time, however, before it starts to show results, Stevens said. The district also hired a new superintendent, Cheryl Pruitt, this year.

“The main thing is we’re spending money on instruction; we’re still doing the right thing,” she said.

Gary has come under criticism from the state about how many administrators it has and recently cut 25 positions. However, the census data show the district spent just $161 on general administration per student in 2010, which put it in the middle of Lake and Porter county districts. Its school administration costs were higher, though, at $751 per student, which was third highest.

Johnson-Shirley strongly opposed the idea that her staff wasn’t good enough, saying they have worked as hard as they can to turn the district around.

“Everyone wants to blame teachers and administrators,” she said.

Look to successful districts

Sample said the state does not have clear definitions of what it considers good spending practices, although she would like to see that in the future. It also isn’t the state’s place to tell districts how to spend their money.

“But we do like to be a clearing house of best practices,” she said.

One thing struggling school districts can do is to look at districts that are successful to see what they’re doing. For Gary and other local districts, that could be emulating local successful ones like Valparaiso Community Schools or School Town of Munster.

They could also look elsewhere in the state for districts that are similar to their size and socio-economic status but are doing better. She also said spending a comparably large amount of money on administration can help a district, as long as the money is worth it.

“You want schools to make good decisions with the money they have; you don’t want them to create these excessively lucrative package deals,” Sample said. “But if you’ve got a superintendent who specializes in urban school districts and you can give them the money to come to your school district, why wouldn’t you?”



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