The Herald Bulletin

September 11, 2013

Editorial: Indiana still doesn't have student choice quite right

The Herald Bulletin

---- — For the past few years, Indiana’s public school transfer law has been patently unfair to some students and some schools.

The law enabled school systems, basically, to accept or reject students from other districts according to their grade-point average and their disciplinary record. This meant that “school choice” was just that — schools could choose students, rather than the other way around. It was also harmful to some school systems, mostly urban, that lost their best students to other districts.

As usual, it’s all about the money, and that’s why transfers have been sought after. The money from the state for each student’s education, about $6,000 a year, follows transfer students to their new district.

Well, the problem was addressed by the Indiana Legislature when it changed the law to require schools to accept transfers without bias toward past academic performance and minor disciplinary issues.

But the law did give schools the latitude to determine how many transfers would be accepted each year. If more students apply for transfers than slots available, a lottery must be implemented.

That law went into effect July 1, meaning that Madison County area schools, like their brethren across the state, had to adhere to the new transfer rules thereafter.

In Madison County, South Madison Community Schools have about the same number of students who live out of district this year (117), as last (122), and the district did not turn away any transfer applicants during a July 1-26 application period, according to Superintendent Joe Buck. However, the old rules were in effect before July 1, and South Madison accepted or rejected transfers up until then based on academic performance and disciplinary records.

Likewise, Frankton-Lapel schools continued to apply its criteria to transfer student applicants prior to July 1 and has had “very few” transfer applicants since, according to district Superintendent Bobby Fields.

So the full impact of the law on local school districts and those across the state — and on students who wish to transfer — really won’t be known until the 2014-15 school year.

The unfortunate reality is that some Hoosier school systems have decided to greatly reduce the number of transfers accepted.

Mishawaka schools, for example, accepted transfers at every grade level and had 450 of them for the 2012-13 school year. One year later, after the new law went into effect, Mishawaka schools accepted just 35 kindergarten transfers and none at other grade levels, according to a recent Associated Press report.

Such a reduction is contrary to the concept of student choice and is an unintended consequence of the new transfer rules.

Another matter to consider: The state’s controversial voucher program enables some low-income students to attend private schools with state assistance. But those private schools can still apply their own criteria to accept or reject students, a luxury no longer afforded to public schools.

After the full impact of the new transfer rules becomes apparent following the 2014-15 school year, the General Assembly should revisit the law to determine whether it’s really promoting student choice of schools. It seems apparent now that legislators still don’t have the law quite right.

In summary Schools can no longer cherry-pick student transfer applicants, but some have responded by greatly reducing transfer slots.