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The Journal Gazette

Richest get richer?

To the list of bad education policies spewing from the Indiana Statehouse, add this: Cash rewards to school districts with the highest passing rates on ISTEP+. Not coincidentally, the 15 school corporations that would have qualified this year include schools serving some of the state’s highest-income areas.

The scheme could mean additional millions for Carmel Clay, Zionsville, Southwest Allen County Schools and other districts serving few children from poverty, immigrants or refugees. Meanwhile, schools facing the greatest challenges would continue to struggle with revenue lost to charter schools and vouchers.

Some Republican lawmakers appeared to be growing uneasy over the pace of so-called school reform as the last session drew to a close. Those same legislators should say no before the ISTEP+ reward proposal goes any further.

The plan comes from Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, who said he wanted to “encourage all Indiana school corporations to perform.” His plan would award all school districts with passing rates of 85 percent or more on both the math and English/language arts sections of ISTEP+ an additional $500 per student. Fifteen school districts and one charter school would have qualified based on 2011 scores.

The money would be awarded by district, not by school. So it wouldn’t be available to Fort Wayne’s Croninger Elementary School, with a 90 percent passing rate, because FWCS’ districtwide passing rate was 63 percent. But it would go to Southwest Allen’s Summit Middle School, with an 82 percent passing rate, because the entire district earned an 87.3 percent passing rate.

“If we’ve set aside funding for under-performing schools, it’s time we appropriate money to reward high-performing schools,” Hershman said in a news release.

Money for “under-performing schools” is carefully targeted to schools serving the highest percentages of children from low-income homes, those learning English as a second language or those with learning disabilities. Reams of research link those factors to academic performance. School officials strive to put limited resources to the students with greatest needs, often targeting schools with additional services to close performance gaps.

The estimated $17 million needed for the reward program could come from new revenues the state is seeing as the economy improves.

“The amount will be determined upon how economic conditions play out, but we believe there will be some new money available for K through 12,” said Hershman, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But any new money should go where the need is greatest, not where performance is strong and no evidence exists to suggest it will result in greater achievement. What Hershman proposes is to reward school districts for serving students from higher-income homes. His scheme sets a perverse incentive for discouraging low-income families from moving into a top-performing district, where they might drag down scores.

Lawmakers are right to question the volume, speed and wisdom of many of the education policies pushed through in recent years. Hershman’s proposal doesn’t deserve even a passing look.