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.

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‘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.

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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.