House GOP wants to rewrite state school-funding formula

House Republicans say they will work in 2015 to boost money for public schools and rewrite the formula that distributes those dollars to try to reduce the gap between the state’s highest and lowest funded districts.

The move could mean a shift in funding from some of the state’s urban districts – and those with the highest concentrations of poverty – to suburban and rural districts. But House Speaker Brian Bosma said the goal will be to increase the funding overall so no district suffers.

Still, Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said districts that have lost thousands of students over the past couple of decades shouldn’t continue to receive significantly higher per-student funding than those that are gaining enrollment.

The state’s highest funded districts receive more than $9,500 per student and the lowest receive about $5,500, Republicans said.

“The disparity in per student funding appears to be flawed to me,” Bosma said. “It will take some thoughtful discussion.”

The proposal is part of the House Republican legislative agenda for the 2015 session. The list of priorities includes a tax credit meant to help teachers who buy supplies for their classrooms. However, it does not include expanding a pre-kindergarten pilot program the General Assembly put in place earlier this year.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the Republican calls for more funding for education sound like the messages Democrats have been sending for years.

“Yes, it is time to invest in our public schools again,” Pelath said in a written statement.

“But never forget the reason our schools are suffering: These same Indianapolis power brokers took a meat cleaver to them time and time again,” Pelath said. “Vouchers and other think-tank experiments kept getting the tenderloin, while public schools got the gristle.”

The Republican caucus is also proposing to strengthen disclosure laws to prevent legislators from voting or acting publicly or privately on legislation in which they have significant financial interest.

That plan comes out of a situation involving Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, who has announced he’ll give up his seat if he wins a re-election bid in November. Earlier this year, Turner lobbied privately for legislation that meant millions of dollars for him and his family.

The House Ethics Committee ruled that Turner did not violate any existing rules, in part because his financial interest in the issue was buried among holding companies. But Bosma nonetheless had said he would strip Turner of his leadership position if he was re-elected.

On Monday, Bosma said the Republican caucus is also looking into changing state law to make it easier to replace candidates on the ballot. Turner decided after a July deadline for ballot changes that he would not serve if re-elected, which leaves voters unsure who would serve in the seat if the Republican wins the race.

“That particular circumstance has caught my attention,” Bosma said. It’s “certainly not optimal.”

The Republican priority list also includes reducing infant mortality rates, the number of police officers killed on duty and domestic violence. But the agenda did not include specific proposals to address those issues.

Bosma said the two-year budget his caucus plans to propose will include increased funding in some areas – including education – but will still seek to reduce the size of government.

He expects state economic growth to top 2 percent annually, which he said will free up cash for lawmakers to prioritize a few key issues – education being among them. Lawmakers will receive a revenue projection in December that will serve as a base for budget decisions.

Bosma said the goal will be to focus on public schools and provide a larger increase than the 2-percent boost they received in Fiscal Year 2014 and the 1-percent increase this year.

Much of that additional funding would go to growing the foundation – which is the base dollar amount allocated per student, before adjustments are made for poverty, special education and other programs. But Bosma said a key will be rewriting other parts of the funding formula so that it’s fairer to all schools, while still recognizing that students in poverty have special needs.

“We have the unusual situation of funding schools that aren’t performing well at the highest levels and funding those at the highest levels the least,” he said.

Some of the disparity among per-student allocations has its roots in the state’s original school-funding system, which relied on property tax rates set by local boards.

But the differences were exacerbated in the 1990s and early 2000s when Democrats controlled the Indiana House. Their budgets included minimum guarantees in funding for all districts, which ensured those with falling enrollments still received more money. That boosted those districts’ per-student funding and eventually created a gap of some 60 percent between the higher and lower funded schools.

Republicans have been working to at least partially undo those differences but the process is taking longer than expected, in part because cutting money to any district is unpopular and increasing funding to all of them is expensive.

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