No more excuses to not fund schools

Indiana legislators will have to work hard to find excuses to underfund K-12 schools now that a state revenue forecast showed they will have a lot more money to spend.

The forecast, which dropped Thursday, says the state will take in about $2 billion more than anticipated in the two-year budget cycle that starts in July. That’s enough to make significant investments in education while doing a better job of meeting other state spending needs.

Lawmakers may argue otherwise, but the evidence is overwhelming that Indiana schools are poorly funded – and that the lack of money means Indiana teachers are underpaid compared to their peers.

  • Ball State economist Michael Hicks has pointed out that Indiana’s per-pupil school spending has declined by 7% since 2010 in real terms. If we had just kept pace with inflation, he wrote, we would have spent an extra $1.3 billion on education last year.
  • A recent school-funding analysis by the Shanker Institute and the Rutgers Graduate School of Education found that Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for “fiscal effort,” the percentage of its economic capacity that it spends on schools.
  • A teacher pay commission appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb found that Indiana needs to find $600 million a year in revenue or savings to raise teacher salaries to the same level as surrounding states.
  • A 2019 study commissioned by the Indiana State Teachers Association was even more pessimistic, concluding Indiana needs to spend $1.5 billion more per year to catch up.

Prior to Thursday’s revenue forecast, the Indiana House and Senate had approved separate versions of the budget that included only minimal increases in K-12 spending. The House budget would direct nearly 40% of the increase to an expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program. The Senate version dialed back the voucher expansion but still committed significant funding to private schools.

The voucher expansion seems certain to happen, despite massive opposition from supporters of public schools. The only questions are how big it will be and how much it will cost.

But overall funding for K-12 education is now an open question. Advocates say the surprise jump in revenue should make this a no-brainer. The Indiana State Teachers Association is calling on budget writers to “go big on K-12 funding and do what’s best for our schools.” Assistant Democratic Senate Leader Eddie Melton said, “We are now within reach of implementing Gov. Holcomb’s teacher pay commission recommendation to put $600 million a year in the school funding formula.”

Republicans, who dominate the legislature, were already starting to drag their feet. They will claim the positive revenue forecast results from their own “fiscal discipline,” but it’s also due to the $1,400 stimulus checks and the additional child tax credits provided by the feds via the American Rescue Plan. And they won’t expect that to last.

Senate President Rod Bray said legislators must “be wary of the day when the economy begins to turn, because we dare not expect this economy to last forever.”

It’s the same old song from Indiana’s Republican politicians: When times are bad, we can’t spend money on schools, because we don’t have it. When times are good, we can’t spend money, because good times won’t last. You would almost think that education isn’t a priority.

Another budget surprise

Indiana House Republicans want to double the grant that charter schools receive to pay for building, technology and transportation expenses from $500 to $1,000 per student.

The proposal is included in the amendment to the budget bill that the House Ways and Means Committee approved this week. Like an expansion of the voucher program, it didn’t go through the House Education Committee and wasn’t discussed as a change in education policy.

The state has been paying $15 million a year for the grant program. With the increase, it could pay $36 million in fiscal year 2020 and $41.4 million in fiscal year 2021 if the program is fully funded, according to a report by the Legislative Services Agency. That’s an additional $47.4 million over two years.

Continue reading

‘Education budget’ would shortchange public schools

Following up on the George Orwell theme from last month: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. And Gov. Mike Pence’s state budget proposal is an education budget.

OK, that’s a bit harsh. But public-school supporters probably rolled their eyes when they read that the governor announced his plan by declaring, “This is an education budget.”

First, at a time when Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are saying they want to make school funding a priority, Pence’s budget increases state spending on K-12 schools by just 2 percent in fiscal 2016 and 1 percent in 2017. That’s not enough to keep pace with inflation, let alone to help schools recover from the funding cuts they endured several years ago.

But the worst of it is that much of Pence’s funding increase wouldn’t go to regular public schools. He wants to give an extra $1,500 per pupil to all Indiana charter schools. That would cost $41 million a year at current charter enrollment – a big chunk of the proposed $134 million increase in fiscal 2016.

In other words, 30 percent of the new money will go to charter schools that serve less than 3 percent of Indiana’s public-school students.

Continue reading

What to do with Indiana’s budget surplus – if it’s real

The words “structural surplus” should raise a red flag for anyone who has followed the history of Indiana state government finances. But more on that later.

Let’s assume that Gov. Mitch Daniels knew what he was talking about when he said Indiana is running a structural surplus of more than $500 million – in other words, the budget is structured so that the state takes in at least a half-billion dollars more than it spends per year.

As a result of the state’s having spent less than it took in for several years, Indiana’s budget reserves reached $2.155 billion at the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year, state Auditor Tim Berry said this week.

Under a law approved by Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by the governor, some of the excess will go to taxpayers in the form of a tax refund of about $100 per individual or $200 per couple, to be handed out next year. But there could be alternatives.

First, Daniels claims that implementing the federal Affordable Care Act could cost the state $50 million to $65 million a year to set up health insurance exchanges and another $200 million a year to expand Medicaid to cover the working poor. Those figures are likely to be worst-case estimates. But even if they’re accurate, implementing the law would take only half the structural surplus.

But this is an education blog, so let’s suggest a couple more options:

// Create a state-funded pre-kindergarten program at least for poor and at-risk children, something that 39 other states have already done. Continue reading

Bennett to testify on education measures before Senate committee

Here’s a chance to catch Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett talking about his education agenda – live on the Internet.

Bennett is scheduled to testify at 4 p.m. Tuesday (March 22) before the Indiana Senate Appropriations Committee. Plans call for the committee hearing to be webcast at www.in.gov/legislative. (Click on the “Watch Indiana General Assembly Live” link at the upper-right corner).

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, has convened a series of hearings on the two-year state budget and related legislation. The notice for Tuesday says Bennett will speak about the school funding formula, remediation and testing, turnaround schools, charter schools, vouchers and collective bargaining – in other words, most of the education platform advocated by Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in the one hour that Bennett is scheduled to be on the stand. Let’s hope Kenley allows plenty of questions from committee members.

The procedure here is sort of unusual. Normally the Indiana House approves a budget bill, and then it goes to the Senate, which passes a different version. And then it goes to a House-Senate conference committee, which works out a compromise.

But House Democrats walked out before the GOP-drafted House budget bill came down for a vote. The state constitution says that bills “raising revenue” must originate in the House. So Senate leaders apparently plan to take a House-approved bill and amend it to include the state budget.

Some lawmakers have suggested the Daniels-Bennett education proposals could end up in the budget bill – if, that is, the governor and superintendent can persuade Kenley that they should pass.