Has the time come for free textbooks?

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.”

Mug shot of Gov. Eric Holcomb
Gov. Eric Holcomb

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.

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Charter schools and property taxes

The state of Indiana provides more generous funding to charter schools than to the traditional public schools that 88% of Hoosier students attend. But charter schools, unlike school districts, don’t get local property tax revenue. Expect their supporters to lobby the state legislature to change that.

A recent Indianapolis Business Journal column lays out the argument. Its authors are Bart Peterson, a former Indianapolis mayor who now heads Christel House schools, and Teresa Lubbers, a former higher education commissioner and state senator who wrote Indiana’s charter school law in 2001.

“Families that pay local property taxes to support local schools deserve fair funding for their children, no matter what local public school they choose,” they write. “We hope the Legislature will correct this imbalance in the upcoming legislative session.”

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Reinventing high school … again?

Indiana legislators want to “reinvent high school.” Didn’t we just do that?

We know it’s a priority, because House Speaker Todd Huston said so at a legislative preview event with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Also, high school is a focus for questions House Republicans are asking in their pre-session constituent surveys.

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‘California liberal’ bankrolls anti-abortion Indiana GOP

Indiana Republicans are spending several million dollars to protect and extend their supermajority status in the state House and Senate in Tuesday’s election. If they succeed, they may want to thank a California billionaire. One who’s usually described as a liberal Democrat.

Reed Hastings is a CEO of Netflix. Politically, he’s known for donating to Democratic politicians, nationally and in California. Netflix supports liberal causes, like abortion rights. But in Indiana, his campaign contributions go almost entirely to Republicans, who trample on his supposed principles.

It’s possible Hastings has given more money to the Indiana House and Senate GOP campaigns than any other individual in the past couple of years. Not directly. The money is funneled through a political action committee called Hoosiers for Great Public Schools. The PAC, headed by former Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, was founded in 2020 to promote charter schools.

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Pro-charter money bankrolls Indiana GOP

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has given another $700,000 to a pro-charter-school Indiana PAC, which has funneled a big chunk of the money to supporting Republican legislative candidates.

The PAC – called, without apparent irony, Hoosiers for Great Public Schools – reported only one contribution in its 2022 pre-primary campaign finance report, covering Jan. 1 to April 8: the one from Hastings, a California resident with a net worth estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion.

Hoosiers for Great Public Schools then gave $100,000 to another PAC, Hoosiers for Quality Education, which favors school choice in all its forms, including private school vouchers. Hoosiers for Quality Education has made over $600,000 in contributions this year, all to Republicans. Most has gone to GOP House candidates who are favored by caucus leaders and are in contested primaries.

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Session could have been worse for education

The 2022 session of the Indiana General Assembly produced plenty of bad news, but at least there’s this: When it comes to education, it could have been worse. Much worse.

Republican legislators failed in their all-out effort to ban the teaching of what they misleadingly call “critical race theory” in schools. They also fell short in their efforts to politicize school board elections, encourage book-banning, and make public schools share funding with charter schools.

Indiana Statehouse
Indiana Statehouse

Their one truly harmful action regarding schools was the approval of House Bill 1041, which prohibits transgender girls from playing girls’ sports. This cruel legislation was designed for one purpose only: to toss a bone to the GOP’s right wing. Maybe – hopefully — Gov. Eric Holcomb will veto it.

Other than that, Republicans wasted people’s time and energy with lots of sound and fury about education, but it ultimately signified almost nothing.

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Days of the living dead

This is the season of the zombie bills, the bad bills that refuse to die. You think you’ve driven a stake through their heart, but they rise and keep coming. Or so it seems.

For example, House Bill 1134, Indiana Republicans’ response to the phony outrage over schools teaching “critical race theory,” faced overwhelming public opposition. It was supposedly dead after the Senate failed to approve it by a deadline. Then it wasn’t: Legislative leaders said they would revive parts of the bill. Then it was dead again when they couldn’t agree on how to do that. But will it stay dead?

We won’t know until the session is adjourned.

As approved by the House, HB 1134 would have banned teaching about certain “divisive concepts,” required teachers to post lesson plans online, let parents sue over supposed violations, and so on. A Senate committee removed some of the worst provisions; but the Senate Republican caucus, after an apparently contentious closed-door meeting, let the bill die.

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Homeschool ‘bridge’ program works to keep funding

Indiana legislators have given a green light – for now — to a school that helps parents use state education dollars to buy Hulu subscriptions, museum memberships and American Girl dolls.

The school, Tech Trep Academy, operates through an arrangement with Cloverdale Community Schools. The state considers it a virtual or online school, but in fact it’s part of a growing trend of “bridge” programs that combine the freedom of homeschooling with public funding.

It opened in 2020, recruiting homeschool families with a promise of $1,700 per student to spend on educational products and programs. State officials warned that was an illegal enrollment incentive, so the school switched to offering points that could be traded for goods and services.

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Opposition to HB 1134 is strong and diverse

UPDATE: Senate Republicans are offering an amendment to HB 1134, which will be discussed in the committee meeting Wednesday. Some details are here.

House Bill 1134 was supposed to divide us. It was designed to pit parents against teachers, white people against people of color, city folks against Indiana’s rural population. It looks like it may be having the opposite effect.

We’re seeing strong and unified opposition to the bill, which would restrict what teachers can say about “divisive concepts” like race and force them to post lessons online so parents can opt out.

Indiana Statehouse

Opposition is coming from teachers’ organizations across the state, with the Indiana State Teachers Association calling on members to pack the Statehouse this week to stop HB 1134.

It’s coming from individual teachers, who warn that the bill could lead to a mass exodus of educators, who simply can’t do their job well under the restrictions it would impose.

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