Democrats oppose textbook funding mandate

Indiana Democratic legislators are pushing back on a plan by House Republicans to shift the cost of textbooks and curricular materials to public and charter schools.

Rep. Tonya Pfaff

First to step up: Rep. Tanya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute. In a news release this week, she says Republicans are pulling an “accounting trick” that will cost Vigo County Community Schools nearly $1.4 million a year.

“Our state constitution promises tuition-free education for all students, and it’s time to make good on that promise for students and families,” Pfaff says. “But House Republicans’ budget is a bait and switch that saddles the Vigo County School Corporation will the cost of all students’ textbooks …”

As of now, Indiana is one of only seven states where families are charged for textbooks and curricular materials. The state pays for books and materials for students who qualify by income for free or reduced-price school meals, but all other families are on the hook for the expenses.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, says he wants to change that. His budget proposal included $160 million a year to reimburse schools for the cost of textbooks.

But House Republicans deleted the funding from their version of the budget, which the chamber approved in late February on a party-line vote. They boasted in a budget summary that their proposal “eliminates fees for textbooks and curricular materials.” It does: It makes it illegal for public and charter schools to charge for them. But it doesn’t provide any money, leaving the funding up to the schools.

Vigo County Community Schools in Terre Haute would see barely a 2% increase state funding next year that’s not eaten up by textbook costs, Pfaff says. That’s obviously far less than inflation. In the second year of the budget, its state funding would grow by less than 0.5%, leaving aside textbook costs. Statewide, paying for textbooks and curricular materials would cost schools over $100 million next year, according to a Legislative Services Agency analysis.

Private schools, unlike public and charter schools, wouldn’t be required to provide free textbooks. The state would pay for textbooks and materials for private-school students from low-income families – but not for their counterparts who attend public schools.

The House budget bill does include language that would let public school districts use their property-tax-funded debt service funds to pay for textbooks. But Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said that won’t help fix the problem.

“That would mean this fiscal policy shift has been inadequately funded by the state legislature and that they have passed a partially unfunded mandate,” he told me by email. “The Debt Service Fund can only be used for narrow and specific purposes, largely for facility financing.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees have started conducting hearings on aspects of the budget. The final spending plan, likely a compromise between House Republican and Senate Republican priorities, is supposed to be approved by the end of April.


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