Senate budget is better but not by much

UPDATE: The Senate budget bill now includes the same expansion to Indiana’s voucher program that the House approved last month. The Senate added the voucher provision as an amendment late Monday. It approved the budget today. Differences between the two versions will be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.

The Indiana Senate took some modest steps in the right direction with the state budget that it approved last week. For education, it improves on the House-approved version on several counts.

  • The Senate budget bill allocates more money for K-12 schools: an increase of 2.7% in the first year of the biennium and 2.2% in the second year versus 2.2% each year for the House version.
  • It keeps more of the funding with public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools, spending less on virtual charter schools.
  • It provides a little more money for “complexity,” the factor in the funding formula that gives more money to schools serving disadvantaged students.

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Funding falls short on effort, fairness

Indiana’s highest-poverty school districts spend only 65 percent of what’s needed for their students to achieve modest academic success, according to a new education finance report from the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and the Albert Shanker Institute.

Is it because we can’t afford to do better? Not at all. Indiana is near the bottom of the states when it comes to funding “effort,” the percentage of gross state product spent on schools.

It’s more compelling evidence that state legislators should be thinking a lot bigger as they decide how much of the two-year state budget to spend on K-12 education.

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Poor schools neglected in funding plan

Hardly anyone wins in the 2019-21 budget and school funding formula approved by the Indiana House, but some schools lose more than others. And high-poverty school districts continue to fall behind.

Legislators have boasted that the budget increases K-12 funding by over 2 percent each of the next two years. But allowing for inflation and increasing enrollment, that’s effectively no increase at all.

As Northwest Allen County Superintendent Chris Himsel tells the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, the key figure is funding per student. Statewide, that will increase by just 1.5 percent in fiscal 2020 and 1.7 percent in fiscal 2021, according to school funding calculations released by House Republications.

And the increase won’t be distributed equally. That’s because funding for the “complexity” category, which funnels additional support to neediest students, is being cut by over $100 million.

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Study: Indiana lags on school funding

Indiana has fallen far behind neighboring states when it comes to funding K-12 education, according to a study released this week by the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Robert Toutkoushian

Robert Toutkoushian

It’s also fallen behind where it used to rank on education spending and teacher salaries. A few years ago, Indiana did a relatively good job of funding schools, but it has slipped markedly in state rankings.

And it will take a lot of money to catch up, the study finds. The state would have to increase K-12 spending by nearly $1.5 billion a year to catch up with surrounding states. It would have to boost spending by $3.3 billion a year to get back the ranking it enjoyed five years previously.

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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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IPS tax request in line with what other districts have approved

The Indianapolis Public Schools board decided this week to ask voters to approve $315 million in increased property taxes to help fund school operations. That may sound like a lot, but spread over eight years and for a district of IPS’ size, it’s a reasonable request.

It’s right in line with what school boards have been asking for in other districts around the state. And voters have increasingly approved those school-funding referendums.

The IPS operating referendum boils down to $39.4 million per year — about $1,300 per IPS student. Some districts, including West Lafayette, Tri-County and Munster, have won approval for more than that, per pupil. Other districts, including MSD Warren Township and Crown Point, have settled for less.

The IPS referendum would increase local property taxes by up to 28 cents per $100 assessed property value. That’s right in the middle of the 16 school operating referendums approved in the past year.

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Closing schools could lead to ‘death spiral’ for IPS

Indianapolis Public Schools just went through the difficult and excruciatingly painful process of closing three of the district’s seven high schools. Now the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce wants it to close more schools as a condition for getting business support for an upcoming school-funding referendum.

The chamber made the demand in an analysis of IPS finances that it released last week. The group said it is willing to support a modest tax increase to help fix aging buildings and give teachers and principals a raise, but only if the district agrees to cut nearly $500 million in spending over the next eight years.

That’s a huge amount — it’s more than a 15-percent reduction in spending, by my calculation. The chamber report never actually refers to closing schools (except in a footnote); it calls for reducing “excess seats.” But it’s clear that closing schools would produce the bulk of the savings. IPS officials say they would have to close at least 10 elementary or middle schools to make the cuts.

“At the end of the day, there are only a few ways to save money,” IPS school board member Kelly Bentley told me. “That’s closing schools and letting go of teachers.”

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