School funding issue persists as Indiana lawmakers reconvene

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – As state legislators gear up to craft the next two-year budget, school districts around Indiana continue to face funding uncertainties amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The turmoil that Indiana schools have faced from COVID-19 will be a top concern of legislators during their session starting in January, Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said last week. Lawmakers warn, however, that uncertainties about state tax collections during the national recession, and whether Congress will approve additional financial assistance for states leave many questions about education funding specifics unanswered.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has maintained that he’s committed to not cutting education funding – even as other state agencies have reduced budgets. He also promised school leaders they would receive 100% of state funding for each of their students, no matter how they receive their instruction.

State officials in September approved a method to maintain that full funding for school districts regardless of whether they were offering instruction virtually or in the classroom during this fall semester. But legislators will likely have to take up the issue because current state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85% of full in-person student funding.

Huston said he expected lawmakers would act before schools are scheduled to report in February the number of students attending in-person or virtual classes.

“That will be on the list of things to deal with quickly when we return,” Huston said. “Our caucus is committed … that’s something we want to get done.”

Indiana State Teachers Association president Keith Gambill said the issue should be a priority for the General Assembly to fix within the first few weeks of the session. He noted that educators around the state are “expecting that Huston keep his commitment.”

“Our folks are counting on the Legislature to fully fund our schools, no matter their format,” Gambill said. “We expect those schools that would be full-force, brick-and-mortar if it weren’t for coronavirus need to have that funding, because all of the expenses are still there. That’s critical.”

The state’s largest teachers union announced earlier this month that it’ll also make a special push to ensure lawmakers take action regarding Indiana’s lagging teacher pay and increased stress on educators during the pandemic throughout the upcoming legislative session.

Leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature said they want to protect school funding while pointing to uncertainty about tax revenue amid the coronavirus-caused recession as they face approving a new two-year state budget next spring.

“It is certainly not our expectation to cut at this time, we’d like to give it a little bump,” Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said. “Obviously, that is going to be challenging because our revenue is a little bit down.”

Bray and Huston both pointed to the $763 million boost to K-12 education funding included in the last budget adopted in 2019 as evidence of the Legislature’s dedication to schools.

The GOP-written spending plan increased base funding for traditional schools funding by about 2% each year, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. Charter schools received 10% more money and private school voucher funding jumped 9%.

Huston said budget writers might not have firm estimates on how much tax revenue will change until they receive an economic forecast in April so they can decide on school funding amounts.

“We have always prioritized it. We will prioritize it again this year,” Huston said. “We’ll just look forward to seeing what resources we have available to us.”

The budget writing session is also slated to be one focused on finding ways to increase starting pay for educators to $40,000 and raise average pay up to $60,000. Bray said last week, however, the state would not reverse course on its position that teacher pay is an issue left up to local school boards.

“We don’t set policy for teacher pay,” he said. “We provide funding to schools. That’s what we’re going to do again this year.”

Holcomb has alternatively said he’s still committed to the effort, and recommendations are due next month from the governor’s commission on teacher pay. Lawmakers have so far remained quiet about any work on teacher pay or expectations from that report.

Gambill said the commission’s findings “will be key” for how Indiana leadership address educator pay, adding that the ISTA intends to “continue holding the Legislature and the governor to their promises” on that issue and others affecting schools in the coming months.

“There are still a lot of unknowns right now, but we will be watching closely as bills move forward,” Gambill said. “These are things that have to be addressed.”

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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