Senate Democrats call for school funding flexibility

Indiana Senate Democrats came out this week with a package of proposals that they say will provide more flexibility and local decision-making for funding public schools.

The initiative was a response to Republic Gov. Mitch Daniels’ decision in December to cut state school funding by nearly $300 million, said Sen. Vi Simpson of Ellettsville, the Democratic leader.

“We want to provide flexibility for teachers, administrators and parents to do what’s needed to protect instruction and programs, and to manage class sizes,” Simpson said. “That control should stay with the local officials, who know the corporation’s needs best.”

The proposals include:

— Let schools transfer up to 50 percent of their capital project fund money to their general funds, which pay salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees.

— Allow individuals to donate all or part of their state income tax refunds to a fund that benefits schools, in the same way they can now support the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund.

— Expand a 50 percent state tax credit to include contributions to public school foundations, such as Bloomington’s Foundation for Monroe County Community Schools. The credit now applies to donations that fund scholarships to children attending private schools.

The capital projects fund transfer would likely help some schools, but not nearly all of them. The legislature voted this year to let schools make a one-time transfer of 10 percent of their capital projects fund to their general fund – and 20 percent if they capped pay and benefits for teachers. But a survey by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University found that fewer than 40 percent of school corporations took advantage of the law.

Most likely, schools didn’t do the transfers because they needed all their capital project money to pay for … capital projects. In fact, with caps on individual property taxes now in state law – and almost certainly about to become part of the state constitution – some superintendents say they will have to rob their general funds (and cut classroom spending) to pay obligated contribution and maintenance expenses.

Even so, credit should go to the minority Senate Democrats for coming up with some ideas that could help schools without costing the state money, which it doesn’t have. Let’s see if the other three caucuses follow suit.

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