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State wants to make transfer rules fair to students

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Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012 6:00 am

When the Indiana General Assembly changed the way schools were funded, they inadvertently eliminated the need for transfer tuition which subsequently created open school choice for students and schools across the state. Now one local lawmaker is looking at implementing some guidelines on school transfers.

State Representative Mike Karickhoff is the author of legislation that will prevent schools from selectively accepting transfer students. House Bill 1081 institutes the following guidelines for school transfers:

Requires the governing body of a school corporation to establish the number of interdistrict transfer students the school corporation has the capacity to accept and the date by which transfer requests must be received by the governing body.

Requires the governing body to publish the transfer request deadline on the school corporation's Internet website and to report the date to the department of education.

Requires the department of education to publish the transfer request deadlines on the department's Internet website.

Provides that if the number of transfer requests exceeds the school corporation's capacity, admissions must be determined by a random drawing at a public meeting.

Provides that a governing body may not deny an interdistrict transfer for any reason other than capacity.

Allows a governing body to limit transfers to ensure that a student who was a transfer student during a school year may continue to attend school in the school corporation, and to allow the siblings of a transfer student to attend school in the school corporation.

In Howard County, school districts have policies that either comply with the changes or directly contradict them, and school superintendents have different takes on the proposed legislation.

"Representative Karickhoff recently proposed some language in a bill that basically says we need to set some parameters to make sure we are fair," said Jeff Hauswald, superintendent of Kokomo-Center Consolidated School Corporation. "While we don't do it, I have experienced situations where one of our students has applied to another school and has been denied because they didn't have good enough grades or pass ISTEP+. I think we need to consider the emotional harm of the child. If you encourage a child to enroll in your school, and then you deny them because they don't have good enough grades, I am not sure that really adequately reflects the intent of this law that was created that allowed for the ease of transfer and school choice. The idea was for it to be parent choice not school choice."

Tracy Caddell, superintendent at Eastern School Corporation, thinks the policy is a bad idea.

"Representative Karickhoff's proposal is poor public policy in my opinion because one of the most important if not the most important duties of any school official is to make sure schools are safe, and parents expect students to come home in the same manner that they came to school," said Caddell. "If you have a transfer tuition legislation that turns the transfer tuition policy into a lottery, then you as a school official cannot guarantee that students who are coming to your school from other school corporations do not have significant discipline issues such as drugs, alcohol and violence that would create a safety situation for your students. I just find it to be irresponsible. I respect Representative Karickhoff; I just think in this particular case he doesn't have an understanding of the duties of school officials and, in particular, the need for local control for the school board to make those decisions."

Both superintendents' takes on the legislation are also reflected in their respective school's transfer policies.

"Our policy is that we have open enrollment, that we accept all students, and we really reserve the right to wave the fee, which we do. We are not currently charging any students," said Hauwald. "We are even accepting students after the county date. If they enroll December we may have missed the count date for next year, but we also believe once we get the students here they are going to stay for the years after. The other thing that is unique about us is we accept the students without a detailed records review. We do not have qualifiers. We do not require students to bring grades, transcripts or ISTEP+ scores. That is never a condition for admittance. Our school district really has its philosophy in helping every student be successful. It really runs counter to our philosophy to reject students based on their academic scores or their grade. We believe when we enroll them our challenge is to take them from where they are and help them excel academically. We currently have a process in place where we don't review candidates prior to admission."

Eastern's policy is the direct opposite.

"We take a look at the student's attendance and academic record at the previous school," said Caddell. "We consider their disciplinary record at the previous school. Class size at the grade level they are asking to enroll into. It can't place an undue burden on the school corporation, including financial if a student has been claimed on another schools ADM. In other words, we allow free transfer tuition up to count day. If we are not getting the tuition after count day it is no longer free."

Hauswald is not against the concept of open enrollment.

"There are good things and bad things," said Hauswald. "We believe it gives students choices, and I have no qualms about that. The only thing that has been difficult is there is greater mobility of students. Every year we have students coming in and going out. Currently it is difficult to adjust staff after the year started. If you are going to reduce staffing you have to basically start in January or February of the year before. If you are going to hire staffing it takes a little while, as well. It is not difficult to add students where you have space. If we are at capacity at grade level, adding students may cost additional staff that you don't have in place, and that is difficult. The biggest challenge is your population is less steady. That being said, we have actually been pretty accurate at predicting our numbers and making adjustments. As far as budgeting goes, the budget is based on population. It used to be based on property taxes, so you pretty much knew what it was. It was a steadier amount of money. Now the dollars follow the kids. There are some positives to that because it really forces schools to make sure they are offering the best educational opportunities for their kids or they will lose kids. It makes your funding a little more sporadic."

Caddell said that he thinks that right now everything is working as intended.

"I think one of the goals going in was to increase the competition among the school districts with the idea that increased competition improves quality," said Caddell. "I think you have begun to see some of that in Howard County with the different unique programs being offered through the various schools, whether it is us with our iPad initiative and various technology, or Kokomo with the different schools the are implementing, or Taylor with the New Tech High School. I think the cream is beginning to rise to the top, and folks are really looking at various initiatives. I think if students can go wherever they want, you can have some of that competition exist, but I think it kind of waters down that whole concept."

Caddell also added that the state shouldn't expect schools to function like private schools and not give them flexibility.

"If we are going to be accountable for all of our students then certainly I would hope that we would have some control over the students that we allow to come into our school district from outside our school district," said Caddell. "If not, then the state may as well get rid of all geographical boundaries. If they do that, then they do that. I have heard often that the state, in many ways, wants us to have the same flexibility as private schools. Private schools can certainly choose the students coming into their school. In our particular case, we want some of the same flexibility."

Hauswald said what the schools have right now is a distortion of what the state intended.

"School choice is when the school gets to pick who they accept and who they don't," said Hauswald. "Parent choice is when the parents get to look at the programs and choose where they want to be. I guess my personal belief is, as these changes in funding and law take place over time, I think this bill is a reaction to something I don't think people predicted would be going on. I support the legislation as I understand it has been proposed. I think it is the right thing for students."

Hauswald said he doesn't believe in having any criteria on accepting students, especially grades. "That is almost a discriminatory practice that we do not embrace," said Hauswald.