It seemed that, finally, after years of debate, the stars had aligned. Indiana parents would no longer have to pay annual rental fees for their children’s school textbooks.
The governor was on board, and so was the leadership of the House of Representatives. “The time has come,” a key member of the Ways and Means Committee said. “We talk about free education and everything else, but the textbook fees have climbed to an astronomical amount.”
The year was 1997. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, had just taken office as governor, and Democrats controlled the House. But Republicans controlled the Senate, and they weren’t keen on having the state pay for textbooks and required instructional materials.
Neither was Suellen Reed, the Republican superintendent of public instruction. “It would be like a tax break for parents, but it does nothing to further education,” she said.
And so it went. Year after year, Democrats introduced legislation to have the state pay for textbooks. Year after year, Republicans blocked the idea. Eventually, it seemed that Democrats gave up.
In 1997, Indiana was one of 10 states where families had to pay for textbooks. Now it’s one of seven.
But maybe the time really has come. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, released his legislative agenda this week, and it calls for prohibiting school districts from charging textbook rental fees. The governor wants to “fully fund the cost of textbooks and other curriculum materials for more than one million students at all traditional public and charter schools and eligible students in non-public schools.”
The cost, he said, would be about $160 million a year. That’s not pocket change, but it’s a relatively modest item within Holcomb’s proposal for $5.5 billion in new spending, spread over two years.
Like many a Democrat over the years, the governor supported his proposal with a reference to the Indiana Constitution’s call for “a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”
“To do this will be meeting the spirit of the law, quite frankly,” he said, according to WFYI News..
Indiana provides free textbooks for families that qualify by income for free or reduced-price school meals. But everyone else is expected to pay, and the fees can be steep. For the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington, they run close to $200 per child for the elementary grades.
Legislative leaders – Republicans now have supermajorities in both the House and Senate – said they were generally supportive of Holcomb’s plan but apparently didn’t directly address textbooks. And there are a lot of big-ticket items in the governor’s budget: raising teacher salaries, expanding access to child care and pre-K, boosting public health spending, economic development and more.
It remains to be seen where free textbooks will fall in legislators’ priority lists.
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