Michael Hicks is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics and the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
This year marks a full five decades of enrollment declines for Muncie Community Schools (MCS). Because of serial fiscal mismanagement, the state legislature is now poised to take control of the school. It must do so, if for no other reason than to protect the bond rating of other Hoosier school corporations from the risk of default by MCS. This is an unfortunate turn of events, which offers a lesson to many communities in Indiana.
Muncie Community Schools once boasted more than 18,000 students. If it enrolls more than 5,000 this fall, it should consider itself fortunate. Over the past decade, MCS enrollment has declined by more than 25 percent. The school board and Muncie Teachers Association have spent a decade crediting this enrollment decline to state policies involving charter schools and private school vouchers. That is a counterfactual claim.
Over the past decade, charter and private school enrollment in Delaware County collapsed, dropping by more than 75 percent. What is true is that school choice legislation allowed families to vote with their feet, and MCS parents overwhelmingly chose other local public schools. Nearly 95 percent of total public school enrollment declines in Delaware County occurred in Muncie Community Schools.
Worse still, by the fall of 2016, MCS was the best-funded school corporation in the region, by margins that should make taxpayers wince. For a typical class of 25 students, MCS received more than $34,000 a year than the next best-funded school in Delaware County and $54,000 more than did the poorest school corporation.
The financial problems of MCS have nothing to do with tax revenues. They are a cost problem, but finances should not be the biggest worry at MCS. Rather, it is the role MCS has played in its own recent enrollment declines that offer the greatest challenge to its future.
I know and respect a number of teachers and administrators in MCS. The district does many things well and all the ingredients for success lie within the schools. Nevertheless, on every metric ranging from individual student growth when controlling for socioeconomic status, to the remediation rate of high-income students attending Indiana public universities, MCS scores somewhere between "below average" and "dismal."
It is important to face the truth that most recent enrollment declines at MCS are due to the poor performance of the schools themselves. The legislature understands this, and an academic takeover, more so than a financial one, is necessary. In this lies the lesson for all Indiana communities.
Population change and fiscal stress are common affairs of local government. There are good times and bad times; preserving both academic quality and fiscal integrity is a straightforward part of local governance. The MCS Board has failed to maintain either. Though all of us can appreciate that consolidating schools or imposing a hiring freeze is unpleasant, these decisions require far less courage than that displayed by a new police officer, firefighter or student teacher on their first day. Cowardice is undeserving of sympathy.
The current school board faces the brunt of criticism, but the problem is at least a decade in the making. Over that time, here in Muncie, there have been protests of President Bush, Obama and Trump. In contrast, school board elections have been placid affairs, with only the teachers union and bus drivers paying any attention to candidates. Unsurprisingly, the result is a school board that has long been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Muncie Teachers Association. That lack of attention has brought MCS to where it is now, with everyone, including teachers, far worse off.
So, the lesson is this; local elections matter. For the people of Muncie, school board elections matter far more than any presidential election ever will. It will be important to remember that when Muncie residents are again permitted to vote for a school board.