Legislation to let school districts share the proceeds of property-tax referendums with charter schools is a short step from becoming law. Maybe that’s a reasonable idea and maybe it isn’t. But the way it arrived – slipped into a catch-all bill with no chance for scrutiny – should upset everyone.
There were apparently rumors around the Statehouse that charter school advocates might want a share of school referendum dollars. But no legislation to that effect was introduced, and no lawmakers suggested the idea during meetings of the House and Senate education committees.
On Monday, though, the referendum-charter measure was filed as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with “various tax matters.” This was well after the bill had been approved by the House and by a Senate committee, when advocates for and against could review the language and have their say.
On the Senate floor, the amendment was approved, 26-25, with Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch breaking a tie.
Public school advocates were blind-sided and scrambled to make the case for stopping the bill. An email blast that the Indiana School Boards Association sent to school officials urged them to act against the “very bad public policy provision that will negatively impact K-12 public education.”
But it was too late to stop it in the Senate. The Republican-dominated chamber approved HB 1065 Tuesday by a vote of 31-19.
The floor debate over the amendment, introduced by Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, was reportedly heated, with even Rogers’ fellow Republicans upset about the way the measure was sprung.
Sixteen of the 40 GOP senators voted against the amendment. But in an odd twist, one Democrat, Sen. Karen Tallian of Ogden Dunes, voted yes, creating the tie that the lieutenant governor then broke.
A few minutes later, a majority of Republicans surprisingly supported an amendment that Tallian offered to a different bill. Was that a coincidence? Her amendment would prohibit charter schools from engaging in lucrative business deals with officials and employees of the schools. That seems like a positive move; but, again, the way it was adopted was not.
Tallian and former Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel are seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general.
Rogers said she introduced the referendum amendment to give school districts the flexibility to partner with charter schools; but she admitted no school district had asked for such flexibility. In 2018, she received $50,000 in campaign contributions from Hoosiers for Quality Education, which advocates for charter schools and vouchers. 2020 campaign finance reports won’t be filed until May.
As it stands, the legislation wouldn’t force public schools to share referendum funding with charter schools. But Joel Hand, who represents the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said there’s concern that, once the language is part of state law, lawmakers could easily change it to a requirement.
Also, expect to see charter school supporters campaigning for school board seats in districts where future referendums are likely. You’d like to think people run for school board because they want what’s best for the district, but there’s nothing that requires it.
The bill now goes back to the House, where its author, Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, will decide whether to agree to the Senate changes. If he concurs, the House will approve or reject the bill in an up-or-down vote. If he dissents, the bill goes to a House-Senate conference committee and the sausage-making continues, mostly behind closed doors. (Update: Thompson has dissented and the conference committee has been appointed).