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Indian Village Elementary School students go through their school library. Media clerks were among those whose hours were cut in a cost-saving measure.

And the inequality grows

The month that State Superintendent Glenda Ritz unveiled a promising literacy initiative for Indiana students, Fort Wayne Community Schools announced it would cut the hours for the school media clerks who help foster students’ passion for reading.

Efforts to keep budget reductions away from students and classroom instruction have run their course. While pressure continues to raise test scores, the same officials making the demands are limiting the ability of schools to help students succeed. It’s time for elected officials at both the federal and state level to give school officials more control over how public dollars are spent on education.

FWCS and other public employers are unintentional victims of the federal health care law and not-so-unintentional victims of a drive to cut public school spending. Effective Monday, the district will reduce the hours of part-time employees who don’t currently qualify for health insurance benefits, along with the hours of 21 employees who oversee elementary school libraries and media collections. The latter group includes employees who do currently qualify for health insurance benefits.

The health care law, which requires employers to offer insurance benefits to any employee who works at least 30 hours a week, wouldn’t be a problem if the school district could simply expand its coverage pool, but FWCS general fund revenues continue to decline. After Gov. Mitch Daniels cut $300 million from public schools in 2010, the district closed Elmhurst High School and Pleasant Center Elementary, outsourced custodial services and changed high school schedules to permanently cut $15 million a year in spending.

The General Assembly’s property tax overhaul moved all school general fund costs to statewide sources of revenue, allowing schools to raise additional money for salaries and benefits only through a voter-approved referendum. Suburban districts, with higher percentages of households with school-age children, can more easily persuade voters to pay higher taxes to support lower class sizes or special programs than urban or rural districts. The likelihood of voters in the FWCS district supporting higher tax bills to offer health insurance for media clerks, classroom aides and cafeteria workers is slim.

“This is what you get when you start eroding support of public schools,” FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson said of the reductions in work hours.

Indiana legislative leaders disingenuously suggest they have increased support for schools. But the state’s growing voucher entitlement program and an increasing number of charter schools have simply spread dollars to more schools. The 2011 voucher law required the Department of Education to make a special distribution from “savings” realized by voucher payments. FWCS will collect about $101,000 from the distribution this year, but it lost about $7 million in state funds to the voucher program.

“Choice in education creates competition,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, at a school choice rally in March. “Competition creates a better product, a better outcome.”

As Long and other lawmakers continue to pass laws that support a second, more exclusive system of schools, the cuts to traditional public schools – including cuts that will compromise literacy instruction – will put his assertion to the test.