House speaker consults for virtual-school business

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston made headlines last year when he left his $460,000 job with the College Board after a controversy regarding legislation to restrict teaching about race. He’s now back in the news, with conflict-of-interest questions raised about his side gig as a consultant.

Indiana Statehouse

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported last week that Huston is one of at least 15 legislators who report on their statements of economic interest that they serve as consultants, sometimes helping businesses that work with or are regulated by the state. Huston started his TMH Strategies Inc. about a month after he left the College Board and lists two clients: Stride Inc. and the tech company Spokenote.

Stride, formerly K12 Inc., is a for-profit provider of virtual education that reported revenue of nearly $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2022. It operates seven Indiana-based virtual public, charter and private schools as well as several private online schools that may enroll Hoosier students, according to its website.

Indiana virtual schools got a nice little gift in the Republican-drafted state budget bill that the House approved in February. In recent years, virtual schools have received 85% of the per-pupil state funding that goes to so-called “brick-and-mortar” schools. The House GOP budget bumps that to 100%.

As a result, virtual schools would see their per-pupil state funding increase by 15-20% next year compared to an increase of 5% or less for brick-and-mortar schools.

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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.

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‘Culture war’ bills target people

They call it a culture war, but it’s not culture that’s under attack. Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly have declared war on real people: teachers, librarians, students and, especially, trans kids and their families. They’re the ones who will be harmed if legislators get their way.

And several education culture-war bills have advanced at the mid-point of the session. Three are especially egregious: ACLU Indiana calls them part of a “slate of hate.” One would ban medical treatment for transgender children, one promotes book-banning, and another would force schools to “out” children over their gender identity.

Senate Bill 480 is the bill banning medical treatment for transgender children. It prohibits “gender transition procedures” for anyone under 18, barring not only surgery but the use of puberty blockers or hormones to delay developmental changes, even if parents approve the treatment. It’s arguably the worst of five anti-trans measures still alive in the legislature.

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House would make schools pay for textbooks

CLARIFICATION: Libby Cierzniak points out that school districts would be able to use their property tax-funded debt service funds to pay for textbooks if they choose.

Indiana House Republicans boast that their budget proposal “eliminates fees for textbooks and curricular materials.” It’s true, but that doesn’t mean the state will pay for them.

Instead, it will kick that responsibility to local school districts and charter schools, at an apparent cost of about $160 million per year. The House GOP budget bill prohibits schools from charging fees for textbooks and instructional materials, but it appropriates zero state dollars to pay the cost.

The House approved the budget legislation Friday on a 66-29, party-line vote, sending it to the Senate, which will make changes. The two chambers will compromise on a final budget in April.

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Vouchers would get outsized share of funding increase

Indiana House Republicans are bragging that their proposed state budget will make record investments in education, including an 8.5% increase in K-12 funding next year. That’s not false, but it’s misleading.

A huge chunk of that increase would go to private schools under a vastly expanded voucher program, not to the public schools that most Hoosier students attend.

Indiana Statehouse

The budget would boost state funding for K-12 schools by $697 million next year, an 8.5% increase from what the state is spending this year. But it’s estimated that about $260 million of next year’s increase would go to growing the voucher program, according to the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

In other words, 37% of the new money for education would go to vouchers that pay tuition for private schools, which enroll just over 7% of Indiana K-12 students. That’s hardly equitable.

The budget appropriation for base school funding, which accounts for 80% of state funding for public schools, would increase by only 4% next year and 0.7% the following year, House Republicans admit. That’s nowhere close to the current or expected rate of inflation.

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Coalition opposes bill to restrict teaching about race

UPDATE: Senate Bill 386 has been removed from the agenda for the Feb. 15 committee meeting.

Indiana legislators are back with another attempt to restrict teaching about race. They will claim they just want to impose reasonable limits that everyone should agree with. Don’t believe them.

But opponents of this effort are organized and ready. We saw that today when the Indiana Education Equity Coalition pushed back with a Statehouse news conference that brought together the Indiana State Teachers Association, the Indianapolis Urban League and NAACP, the Indiana Latino Institute, the ACLU and others.

Head shot of ISTA president Keith Gambill.
ISTA President Keith Gambill

This year’s legislation, Senate Bill 386, is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee. As introduced, it targets teaching about race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and other factors. The committee is expected to amend it to focus only on race.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem that just simply doesn’t exist in our classrooms,” ISTA President Keith Gambill told me in a telephone interview after the news conference.

The language of the legislation prohibits things that, obviously, no teacher should do, and the bill’s supporters have provided no evidence that anyone does it. It says a teacher may not “compel, promote or indoctrinate” the belief that one race is superior or inferior to another.

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Lawmakers push property taxes for charter schools

Indiana legislators are considering a significant change in Indiana school finance that would, for the first, time, require public school districts to share local property tax revenue with charter schools.

Senate Bill 398 is set for a hearing Tuesday in the Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee. A similar bill in the House hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing, but probably will be. House Bill 1607 goes further than SB 398 by also requiring school districts to share referendum funding with charter schools.

Indiana Statehouse

SB 398, authored by Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, would require school districts to share revenue from their property tax-supported operations funds with charter schools. The money would be allocated according to the number of students who live in the school district and attend charter schools.

The measures follow a public advocacy campaign that may have pushed the issue of charter school funding onto lawmakers’ agendas. The campaign, which included TV and social media ads, focused on differences in funding between Indianapolis Public Schools and charter schools.

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Partisan school board elections still a bad idea

Indiana Republican legislators seem determined to turn school board elections into partisan political affairs. There are so many reasons this is a bad idea. I’ll start with this: It would prevent many excellent board members from serving.

I’m thinking of David Sabbagh, who was a thoughtful and dedicated member of the Monroe County Community School Corp. board. Years earlier, he was elected to the Bloomington City Council as a Republican. Sure, he was what today would be called a RINO, but he had an R by his name on the ballot.

And I’m thinking of Keith Klein, who was elected four times to the MCCSC board before his untimely death in 2021. I have no idea what his political affiliation was, or if he had one. Like Sabbagh, he put the wellbeing of the school district and its students ahead of any thought of politics.

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Survey finds strong parent support for schools

It would be nice if state legislators read the results of a recent survey of Hoosier parents conducted for the Indiana Department of Education. It would be even better if they took them to heart.

If they did read the results, here’s what they would learn:

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‘Career scholarship’ bill is short on details

Legislation that would give Indiana high school students a sort of voucher account to pay for career training is up for a second hearing and possible vote today by the House Education Committee. It’s an unusual measure, one that raises a lot of questions.

House Bill 1002 would create a “career scholarship account” program. High school sophomores, juniors and seniors could set up the state-funded accounts, which they could tap to pay for career courses, job training and apprenticeships. Payments could go to schools, businesses, labor organizations and “intermediaries,” which are organizations that connect students with employers.

The complex, 86-page bill is a top priority for House Republicans, who have pledged to “reinvent high school.” At an initial hearing Jan. 18, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chair of the Education Committee, helped explain the bill and fend off questions from skeptical Democrats.

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