Following up on the George Orwell theme from last month: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. And Gov. Mike Pence’s state budget proposal is an education budget.
OK, that’s a bit harsh. But public-school supporters probably rolled their eyes when they read that the governor announced his plan by declaring, “This is an education budget.”
First, at a time when Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are saying they want to make school funding a priority, Pence’s budget increases state spending on K-12 schools by just 2 percent in fiscal 2016 and 1 percent in 2017. That’s not enough to keep pace with inflation, let alone to help schools recover from the funding cuts they endured several years ago.
But the worst of it is that much of Pence’s funding increase wouldn’t go to regular public schools. He wants to give an extra $1,500 per pupil to all Indiana charter schools. That would cost $41 million a year at current charter enrollment – a big chunk of the proposed $134 million increase in fiscal 2016.
In other words, 30 percent of the new money will go to charter schools that serve less than 3 percent of Indiana’s public-school students.
What’s the rationale? “The charter school grant aims to bring more equity to school funding in Indiana,” said Pence spokeswoman Bridget Cleveland. She pointed out that regular public schools, unlike charter schools, can raise money with property taxes. On average they raise $3,000 per pupil.
But for the most part, property tax dollars pay for transportation and buildings; they can’t be spent on teacher salaries and other general operating expenses. (The exception is for schools that have passed local referendums; but referendums don’t raise close to $1,500 per student). Charter schools get as much general-fund money, per pupil, as the public school districts where they are located.
Charter schools, unlike public schools, aren’t required to provide transportation for students, and typically they don’t. It’s up to parents to get their kids to school.
They do need buildings. But remember: 1) State law requires public school districts to lease or sell their vacant or unused buildings to charter schools for $1; and 2) the state and other sources provide affordable loans for charter school construction.
Under the governor’s proposal, there’s no requirement that charter schools use any of the additional $1,500 per pupil for transportation or buildings.
Pence also wants to lift the current $4,800 cap on taxpayer-funded vouchers for students in grades 1-8. Cleveland said that will cost $4 million a year. It will come from the same pot of money that funds public schools. (Vouchers would still be “capped” at 90 percent of what it would cost for the student to attend a local public school or the cost of the private school’s tuition, whichever is less.)
The governor would flat-line funding for Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program at $10 million a year. He would boost funding for teacher merit-pay grants by 10 percent a year and provide $5 million a year to support school turnaround initiatives.
Of course, the governor’s proposal is just the start of the budget-writing process. Pence’s fellow Republicans may have supermajorities in the House and Senate, but that doesn’t mean they all agree on school funding priorities. It will be late April before we know how this will turn out.