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Indiana budget should increase funding for public schools — not vouchers — Democrats say

Photo caption: Democratic Sens. Andrea Hunley, (center) along with Greg Taylor (left) and Fady Qaddoura, (right) all of Indianapolis, speak at a news conference on Thursday, March 23, 2023 at the Indiana Statehouse.

House and Senate Democrats argue that funding should go toward educating low-income kids and textbooks

By Casey Smith, Indiana Capital Chronicle

Democratic state lawmakers continue to decry education funding “inequities” in the state’s draft budget and are now mounting pressure on their Republican counterparts to “fully fund” Indiana’s traditional K-12 public schools in the next spending plan.

House Republicans tout that nearly half of their budget proposal, 48%, goes to K-12 education, which will get a “historic” boost of nearly $2 billion over its current appropriation.

But members of the minority caucus argue that one-third of that new funding will go to the Choice Scholarship program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. And another chunk would come off the top to cover textbooks.

“We are not currently funding Hoosier students adequately,” Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis, said last week during a news conference. “The proposed voucher expansion is another erosion of critical funding for public schools and our public school students who perpetually draw the short straw in educational funding.”

Echoing school district officials and advocates for traditional public education, Democrats maintain that 90% of Hoosier kids attend public schools. As such, they’re calling for even greater increases to tuition support to cover rising costs due to inflation, and to compensate for the unfunded mandate in the current budget proposal that would require schools to dip into base funding to cover textbook costs.

Although Indiana schools could see increases to foundation grants — the basic grant for every student — of 4% in fiscal year 2024 under the draft budget, those grant amounts would go up just 0.7% in the following year. School business officials said that means about three out of every four Indiana school districts would get less than a 2% increase — or less funding overall — in 2025.

“In its current form, the budget would funnel about a third of new dollars to school types that educate less than 10% of our students,” Hunley, a former principal and school teacher, continued. “That leaves just 70% of new money to cover more than 90% of our students in public schools, which already have to fight year after year to secure every dollar possible to keep the lights on to pay our teachers, and to provide a high quality education for our students.”

The next two-year state budget is now under consideration in the Senate. GOP legislators in that chamber likely won’t unveil their version of the budget until early next month. A final version of the plan is expected by the end of April.

Senate Democrats push for “fair funding deal”

Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor said his caucus was happy to see the budget expand supports for adult learners, including new and increased grants to help with high school completion and trade credentialing.

Taylor, of Indianapolis, said he also appreciated a “nominal increase” in school funding for English language learners and special education students, as well as new dollars aimed at work-based learning experiences for high schoolers.

“All of these provisions are aimed to support the educational needs of students who need it most,” he said. “But you can’t have a situation where you keep touting the increased funding for public schools, and then divert some of the funds for programs that you like, while the rest of the community — the other 90% — see a decrease.”

Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, said Democrats are increasingly concerned about the Republican-led push to send more taxpayer dollars to private schools via the state’s voucher program.

Expanded eligibility for the vouchers, as proposed, would raise the income ceiling to 400% of the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program, equal to about $220,000.

Currently, vouchers are limited to families that make less than 300% of the federal poverty level, meaning a family of four can make up to $154,000 annually.

After the expansion, the program would cost the state an estimated $500 million in fiscal year 2024, and another $600 million in the following fiscal year. The current state budget appropriates $240 million annually for the Choice Scholarships.

“If we take $500 million out for voucher schools, the amount of money that is left is not sufficient to fully fund our public schools and teacher salary increases across the state,” Qaddoura said.

He added, too, that the House budget fails to adequately fund K-12 schools “in the aftermath of COVID-19 and with inflation.”

If new money directed at K-12 schools was distributed “proportionately,” Hoosier public schools would be getting around $342 million more than they currently are, Hunley noted.

She also called for “an overhaul” to the formula that determines how much supplemental “complexity” funding schools receive for low-income and at-risk students.

That funding is set to increase under the House Republican plan — up 4.4% in fiscal year 2024 and 1% in fiscal year 2025 — but Democrats said it’s still not enough.

“At the same time that we’re funneling money away from traditional public schools to cover the cost of private schools for well-off Hoosier families, we’re not spending one real dollar on the poorest students in our state,” Hunley said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of inequity — that’s what we have in our funding agreement. And this cannot be how we approach school funding. This cannot be how we approach our children’s education.”

House Democrats crunch costs for “textbook funding gimmick”

House Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly picking apart the “textbook funding gimmick” carved into the draft budget.

Members from the caucus said an “accounting ploy” by House Republicans unfairly forces traditional K-12 schools across the state — including in GOP districts — to be on the hook financially for students’ textbook costs and saddles districts “with an effective budget cut.”

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On the surface, most public school districts would see increases in base student funding from 2023 to 2024. Because of the textbook provision, however, that increase is either slashed or turns negative once textbook costs are factored in. With inflation at 6.0%, most school districts are receiving “a practical funding cut,” House Democrats said.

A budget analysis released by the House Democrats indicates that schools in Republican districts are among those that could lose millions under the plan passed unanimously by their GOP representatives.

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“I don’t like to make a habit out of commenting on other districts’ affairs, but it’s imperative that Hoosiers across the state understand just how harmful this proposal will be and what’s at stake,” House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said in a statement.

“House Republicans frequently gloat about Indiana’s lucrative surplus, but what good is a surplus if we don’t use it to help enhance the lives of our constituents and bolster programs such as public education?” he continued. “This scheme to deduct the cost of textbooks from a school’s annual budget is not only dishonest, it takes away from the resources schools have to give our children the best possible education.”

As part of his 2023 legislative agenda, GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb promised free textbooks for K-12 families.

His proposed budget included a line item — separate from the school funding formula — directing additional funds to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). The state agency would then be responsible for dishing out textbook dollars to schools.

But while the House GOP budget prohibits individual school districts and charter schools from charging fees for textbooks and instructional materials, budget writers did not specifically appropriate state dollars to cover the cost.

Instead, the current budget plan requires schools to dip into their foundational funding to fully pay students’ textbook costs.

“I want to, ultimately — I want it done, so taxpayers and parents don’t pay twice,” Holcomb said earlier this month about eliminating textbook fees. “We’re working on this. But whatever final form it takes, it needs to be one that is not able to pass (fees) on to parents again. I want it eliminated for parents.”

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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