By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
— Officials in Eastern Howard School Corp. are waging an online campaign to stop a piece of legislation that attacks the practice of “cherry picking” transfer students.
State Rep. Mike Karickhoff co-authored the bill that would ban school districts from accepting only the brightest transfer students while turning away those with special needs, low test scores and minor disciplinary problems.
“We’re going to do our level best to ensure that students choose schools [and] schools aren’t choosing students,” Karickhoff said last month after the House education committee approved the legislation.
The bill has since passed out of the House and remains in the Indiana Senate.
It proposes that schools hold a lottery to decide which transfer applicants are accepted to schools.
Eastern officials have made regular posts on the district’s Facebook page urging parents to contact legislators to voice their opposition to the legislation.
They’ve posted comments about the bill at least 10 times since March 6 — even going so far as to say the district will stop accepting transfer students if the bill becomes a law.
But transfer students currently make up 16 percent of Eastern’s budget, so ending the transfer practice could cost some teachers their jobs, Eastern Superintendent Tracy Caddell said.
He said he has a problem with a lottery system that would take control away from local school boards, especially when many districts don’t have an issue with “cherry picking” the students they accept.
Northwestern School Corp. officials said they accepted 95 percent of transfer students this year.
That figure was a little lower for Western School Corp. This year, Western turned away 29 students, or 24.4 percent of applicants.
Caddell said Eastern accepts 96 percent of the students who apply to transfer there — including special education students.
“Representative Karickhoff has shared with me that this bill is about fairness,” Caddell said. “We have 231 transfer students from 19 different schools or corporations. There is not an issue of cherry picking.”
He said it’s actually an issue of whether a school board should have the right to deny transfers to students who live outside the district. That’s always been a power given to local school boards, he said.
“We certainly think every student has a right to attend school in their own district,” the superintendent said. “It’s a privilege to attend a school in someone else’s district.”
Western School Corp. Superintendent Randy McCracken agreed with Caddell.
In September, he said the property taxes that people living in the district pay help support the buildings and the transportation that transfer students take advantage of. Because of that, the district has to maintain the high expectations the community has for the schools.
“This high expectation includes the transfer students we accept,” he had said.
Caddell is worried a lottery system would affect graduation rates at his high school — a statistic the state monitors closely and one that could soon be tied to the school’s performance report from the state.
He said he had a student last year who was a junior and wanted to transfer to Eastern, but he had only four high school credits. The student wanted to be closer to his girlfriend, Caddell said.
Some students are so behind when they apply for a transfer that there isn’t any way Eastern could help them catch up and graduate on time, Caddell said.
Under this legislation, those students would have to be entered into a lottery if there were open seats in the district.
Karickhoff’s legislation says the only way a school board can deny a transfer request is if the student has been suspended in the previous year for 10 or more days, for causing a physical injury, for possessing a firearm or for violating drug or alcohol rules.
The bill leaves no room for criteria local schools once used to select transfer students. Almost all area schools asked for a transfer applicant’s transcript, discipline record and ISTEP scores before deciding whether to let the student in.
Taylor School Corp. Superintendent John Magers said he’s generally in favor of Karickhoff’s bill that prohibits schools from using such records to decide which transfer students can come to a school.
But the district’s bylaws say academic, attendance and disciplinary records will be considered when an applicant applies for a transfer to Taylor.
Despite that, Magers said, “Everybody should be on a level playing field. We should be accepting children no matter what their academic needs are.”
He said it’s not “morally correct” to accept students based on test scores or attendance records.
In September, though, Magers admitted that the open enrollment policies had hit Taylor hard.
While more than 500 county students are attending school outside their district, not many are choosing Taylor.
In fact, Taylor is down about 50 students this year, Magers had said. Because state tuition dollars now follow the student, Taylor lost more than $100,000 in revenue when those students left.
Caddell said many of those students are choosing Eastern instead.
Transfer students have allowed the district to add teachers and programming at a time when the school-aged population inside the district was shrinking.
But if the transfer bill becomes law, Caddell will recommend that Eastern stop accepting transfers, no matter what the consequences are.
He’s hoping to stop the bill before it gets to that point, though.
“Eastern adamantly opposes this bill,” he said. “It’s a bad bill.”