It’s entirely possible that Indiana schools will lose millions of dollars in state funding if they aren’t opening their doors to in-person instruction this fall.
Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, the Senate president pro tem, raised the issue in a letter last week to school officials, pointing out that state law says online classes qualify for only 85% of normal funding.
Gov. Eric Holcomb and several legislative leaders indicated in June that the funding restriction would be lifted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bray said there is “a strong appetite” in the legislature for making that change for schools that offer online learning as an option.
“However, there is no guarantee such an exception will be made for schools that don’t give families the option of in-person instruction in a school building,” he wrote. “Therefore, schools that don’t offer in-person instruction should plan on operating under the current funding policy.”
I initially thought Bray was doing a little political saber-rattling – making a nod to President Donald Trump by threatening schools with funding cuts. But Bray doesn’t seem the type to go it alone on something this serious. It seems more likely that he’s expressing the sentiment of Senate Republicans.
When the governor and top legislators said two months ago that online students should be fully funded, no one was talking about not opening schools for in-person classes. But COVID-19 cases increased sharply in parts of the state, and at least 40 of the state’s nearly 300 districts are opening online only. So are some charter schools, which are subject to the same funding guidelines.
Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards, said those districts and schools may lose funding. “Our advice to school leaders would be a cautious approach and anticipate the 15% cut in funding if they are offering virtual learning only,” he told me by email.
Spradlin and Jennifer McCormick, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction, have urged Holcomb to call a special session of the legislature to fix the problem. So have Democratic legislators and the Indiana State Teachers Association. Members of the Zionsville school board, in a letter to Holcomb and other state officials, lamented not only the financial challenge but the human toll of funding threats.
“Recent threats to financially punish schools that have made decisions to provide instruction remotely months after they were guaranteed that local decisions would be supported, and just as classes were getting underway, are cruel,” the board members wrote.
So far, Holcomb hasn’t said if he will call a special session. He did say in a statement that he remained committed to providing “100% funding to schools as they navigate the unprecedented challenges of opening the academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
He added, however, “Many schools are returning with classroom instruction thanks to the herculean efforts of our public health officials, educators, students, parents and communities.” Was that a veiled suggestion that all schools could return with classroom instruction?
McCormick, interviewed on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” reiterated her request for a special session or an executive order by the governor providing for full funding of schools.
“It’s one thing to say we’re supporting state funding, but we need action,” she said.
If schools that are online-only do take a 15% cut in state funding, it will be significant, McCormick said. Indiana public schools and charter schools get most of their operating support from the state. Here are estimates of how much several districts could lose:
- Monroe County Community Schools, $10.3 million.
- Indianapolis Public Schools, $33.8 million.
- Washington Township Schools (Indianapolis), $10.6 million.
- Hamilton Southeastern Schools, $19.2 million.
That’s assuming the cuts are in place for the entire 2020-21 school year. As Spradlin pointed out, there are many questions that need to be addressed. If schools are offering in-person classes by the state’s enrollment “count day” in September, will they get 100% funding? If they are online-only for part of the year, will their funding be pro-rated? What about schools that are ordered by health officials to close? Or schools that halt in-person classes in response to an outbreak of infections?
Schools are under tremendous pressure to balance providing high-quality education with protecting the health of students, teachers and staff. This funding issue needs to be fixed as soon as possible.