Education spending debate a matter of priorities

Top Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly agree that more money is needed to improve Indiana's education system in the next two years, but how that money will be spent is a point of debate.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has said throughout the session that he would like to spend more on education, but he has yet to say how much or where. Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee and the former chairman of the House Education Committee, has said the state should repay the $300 million cut from public schools during the recession.

Education spending is typically at the center of most budget battles in the Statehouse because it accounts for a massive share of the state's spending. This year is no exception, as lawmakers ponder whether to spend the state's surplus on more services like education or a $500 million tax cut sought by Gov. Mike Pence.

But the money could go anywhere. Measures to lift a one-year waiting period for school vouchers and extend the program to military and foster families, along with special needs children, come with a price tag. Any effort to pay Indiana teachers more would clearly cost the state more under a school funding formula that shifted much of the costs away from local taxpayers and onto the state.

Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Excellence in Education, said the state needs to continue a paradigm shift that ties money to students, not necessarily schools.

"The debate has to change from giving more money to asking more, 'What are we giving money for?'" said Enlow, who helped push a sweeping 2011 education overhaul with former Gov. Mitch Daniels and then-schools chief Tony Bennett.

A handful of measures, including ones supported by Bosma and other House Republicans, would build on that overhaul by expanding who can qualify for vouchers and establishing a scholarship program to send children to private preschools.

Pence's budget priorities include allocating $64 million more to schools which that well on third-grade reading tests, the state's standardized exam and a new A-F grading model implemented by Bennett before he left office.

In his first State of the State address, Pence talked about the Davis family of Indianapolis, whose daughter attends Trader's Point Christian Academy with help from a state scholarship, as an example of the success of the changes started two years ago.

"We've made progress in expanding choices, but we can do more," Pence said. "Expanding tuition tax deductions, removing the prior year requirement and lifting means testing for foster, adopted, special needs and military families would be a good start."

But the president of Indiana's largest state teachers union said the budget cuts made by Daniels and the shifting of state dollars to private institutions is undercutting the pool of talented teachers needed to improve state schools.

"I know people are getting out of the profession, some of the younger teachers for those reasons — they simply can't raise a family on that based on beginning teacher salaries," said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Pence's answer to that issue is to place $6 million more in a grant program for teachers who perform well.

The stated goal is the same, but the answers are worlds apart.

Similarly, Bosma has suggested the state spend $7 million on a pilot program that would give families vouchers to send their children to private preschools. Schnellenberger says the state should build a public preschool program.

Democrats and Republicans, public and private school advocates, all love education. They just have different ways of showing it.

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