State board opts for full school funding for fall

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb called on the State Board of Education to delay the fall 2020 enrollment “count day” to address worries about school funding in the coronavirus era. Instead, the board opted for a different approach – and arguably a better one.

Instead of postponing the count, the board decided Wednesday to have its executive director adjust the state school funding formula “to ensure full anticipated funding for students receiving virtual education due to COVID-19,” in the words of a news release.

The director, Brian Murphy, will modify the school funding rule so that schools that provided in-person instruction in the spring 2020 semester will receive full state funding for the fall semester, even if their students are attending school online this fall.

Schools that were operating fully online before the pandemic – a handful of virtual charter schools and online programs operated by public school districts – will continue to receive 85% of full state funding, the amount allotted under the law.

The decision draws its authority from an executive order that Holcomb issued in March, enabling agency heads to modify state rules in the interest of public welfare.

The upshot is that school districts and charter schools that were offering in-person instruction in the spring should get the money they expected, even if they are now operating fully or partially online. About 40 of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts started the fall semester entirely online. Some districts are offering online instruction as an option for families that don’t feel safe sending their kids to school.

The dilemma arose after the leader of the state Senate suggested that school districts that moved online should only receive 85% of their normal state funding. .

The fall count day, which normally occurs in September, determines school districts’ official enrollment and is used to calculate how much state funding they will receive each month. Holcomb’s proposal to delay the count day didn’t resolve the problem. It merely kicked the can down the road.

The state board’s approach, reportedly developed “after discussions with education stakeholders across the state,” provides more long-term certainty about school funding.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick welcomed the move. “I am grateful for the many calls and emails made by educators, administrators, parents, and community members to our elected officials,” she said in a statement. “This tireless advocacy created action and change.”

The enrollment count will take place in September and will include students who are attending in person and those who are attending online. If a school district added students in the fall, it will get more funding. If it lost students, it may get less.

Under Holcomb’s proposal, we wouldn’t know if school districts gained or lost students until January. Then the districts’ funding for the fall 2020 semester would have to be adjusted, after the fact, to account for enrollment.

I’m guessing Holcomb, who appoints most members of the State Board of Education, is on board with this approach. But what about state legislators, who have ultimate authority over school funding? Also, what happens in the spring if some schools are still online? Schools aren’t out of the woods yet, but this is a step in the right direction.

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