What’s your new year’s resolution?
As we’ve mentioned, the Indiana General Assembly has promised to try to balance the budget in the upcoming 2015 legislative session without increasing taxes. But even after they ring in the new year, the subject of money will be impossible to ignore.
Funding is at the core of many of the stories we expect to be big this year – testing, pre-k, and how the Department of Education and the State Board of Education agree (or disagree) to spend the state’s education money.
We’ve already outlined a few education initiatives that the General Assembly hopes to fund this session. Now let’s take a look at exactly what it would take to move forward with those proposals, plus a few others.
Changing the School Funding Formula
Money for K-12 in Indiana is allocated based on enrollment. Right now, a school corporation receives a minimum of $4,280 per pupil, with kindergarteners counted as half a student.
The legislature has a tradition of regularly modifying this formula during their biannual budget process, distributing additional funds based on numbers of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, students graduating with honors, and other measures.
This time around, proposed changes suggest broader moves. Both Governor Pence and House leadership say they wants to increase base funding per pupil to help close the gap between wealthy and low-income districts. Recent research from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs confirms this gap does in fact exist, and it is only getting bigger.
But Lesley Weidenbener of The StateHouse File says the idea might not come to fruition – it may just be “big talk:”
Funding for education makes up 63 percent of the current two-year spending plan, according to the State Budget Agency. Most of that money goes to base funding for K-12 schools.
In the current fiscal year, nearly $6.7 billion is going to the school funding formula. It will take nearly $135 million in the next two-year spending plan just to boost school funding by a mere 1 percent per year – which doesn’t quite cover the cost of inflation.
And House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has said he wants to boost education funding by more than the 2 percent increase schools received in FY 2014 [...]
Republicans are proposing to close the gap between the per-pupil spending received by many urban districts and the amount received by faster-growing suburban districts.
That’s a relatively simple process with enough money. Lower-funded districts could receive big increases while lower-funded schools get a little more. That way all districts get additional money, but the ones with fewer dollars per-student get a bigger boost.
But without putting a lot more money into the school funding formula, the changes proposed by Bosma and his caucus could result in a shift of dollars. Money now earmarked for higher-funded districts could end up redistributed to lower-funded ones – and that is a big political problem.
Paying for the Pre-K Pilot
From the outset, money was a critical issue in the state legislature’s decision to deny, then later approve the “On My Way Pre-K” pilot program. The legislature has allocated $10 million to the Family and Social Services Administration to run the program this first year, and they’ll be asked to approve the same amount to continue the program next year.
Pre-K in Other Cities
The five pilot counties aren’t the only communities starting pre-k programs, meaning they also aren’t alone in knocking on doors to find funds. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard successfully got a pre-k program approved for his city – but not without a fight. The program will cost an estimated $40 million, and members of the Indianapolis City-County Council, as well as other prominent city politicians, initially pushed back on paying for the program.
The support for public pre-k funding isn’t replicated in all Indiana communities. Bartholomew County residents voted down a referenda to fund pre-k for low-income kids for a second time in November. Pre-k supporters in the area say they’re not sure how else to raise funds – especially after Governor Pence decided to withdraw Indiana’s application for what could have been up to $80 million over four years earmarked specifically for early childhood education.
Referendum expert Larry DeBoer told StateImpact that other counties interested in starting up pre-k ventures (perhaps one of the counties not selected for the pilot) will likely look to Bartholomew County as an example of what could happen if they go it alone.
“There’s no doubt the superintendents talk to each other and the school boards talk to each other, and one of the things that gets talked about at practically every meeting is, ‘what’s going on with the referenda? How did you get your referenda passed?’” DeBoer explains. “No doubt that the Bartholomew County experience will be talked over. Whether that will scare people off, I don’t know.”
IDOE Budget Request Reflects Priority On New Tests
When Indiana tossed out the Common Core and came up with a new set of academic standards, requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind law meant the state needed a new test to match them. Enter the “new ISTEP+” students will take this coming spring, as well as another iteration in the works for spring 2016.
In presenting her budget request for the Department of Education, state superintendent Glenda Ritz asked the State Budget Committee for $65 million for testing and remediation. That’s an increase from last budget cycle, when the IDOE asked for $45 million.
Remember, the test students will take this year is not yet finalized, and the State Board of Education is still seeking a vendor to write next year’s test. Who is selected, how the rewrites go, and how students perform will undoubtedly be some of the biggest stories in education in 2015, so seeing how the test is paid for is just the first step.
Ritz’s budget request also included $70 million more per year for textbook relief and more money for schools to invest in technology and related training, both of which will continue to be topics of discussion.
Voucher Cap Could Be Lowered
Indiana has one of the country’s top school voucher programs. Right now, vouchers allow a student to take state money normally distributed only to public schools to a private school of his or her choice. These “Choice Scholarships” have been available to low- and middle-income families for the past three school years, during which time the program grew larger each year. The most money a family can receive is $4,800.
Governor Pence is advocating for removing this cap on Choice Scholarships in order to expand the voucher program. This isn’t the first time he’s asked the legislature to do so, and last time the idea didn’t pan out because of cost concerns. Whether or not expansion works out this time, and what it could mean for the size of the program and how much it costs to operate remains to be seen.