GOP leaders say education funding to be focus of 2015 session

Republican legislative leaders want to restore their credibility among Indiana teachers with proposals they say will mean more money for education and drive more dollars into classrooms and away from administration.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said on the General Assembly’s Organization Day he has assembled a team of 10 former teacher-of-the-year winners to advise him on education issues.

He proposed boosting overall education funding, giving teachers a tax break for supplies they purchase with their own money, and using both “carrots and sticks” to move money away from school administration and into what lawmakers consider classroom spending.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the General Assembly must “make sure the overhead some districts have built over the last couple decades is slimmed down.”

“We need to be as efficient with that money as possible,” Long said.

Long said the emphasis on education is meant both to help students achieve and to counter negative messages spread by the Indiana State Teachers Union that Republicans don’t respect educators.

“I think their message is damaging,” Long said.

Bosma and Long talked about education issues on the first official day of the 2015 legislative session, a largely ceremonial meeting used to swear in lawmakers and elect leaders. After a flurry of largely procedural votes, lawmakers adjourned until Jan. 6, when the session will begin in earnest.

That’s when lawmakers will begin working on the next two-year state budget, which is likely to top $30 billion in spending, more than half of which will go to education. The vast majority of that money is dedicated to K-12 schools, and already, House Republican leaders say they plan to revamp the way the state distributes those dollars to districts.

“We’re going to take a hard look at the disparities in urban, suburban and rural school funding and look for solutions,” Bosma said. “Progress on money following the child has to be made.”

Currently the highest funded districts in the state – mostly urban districts – receive more than $9,000 per student, while some faster-growing suburban districts get only about $5,500 per student.

That’s in part because the school funding formula earmarks more money to poor students. But it’s also a legacy of school funding strategies in the 1990s and early 2000s that provided minimum guaranteed increases to districts even if they were losing students. That bolstered the per-student funding for urban districts while some suburban schools with growing enrollment watched their per-student funding drop.

Those minimum guarantees have been gone from the formula for years, but Bosma said the funding problems have not been solved.

“I acknowledge that’s not going to be an easy task. It will be a parochial one because it will impact each one of our school corporations,” Bosma said. “But it must be done.”

But Democrats are skeptical.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said while he’s willing to look at the school funding formula, he’s concerned that there won’t be enough money dedicated to schools to help lower-funded districts without hurting others. Instead, he said, there will be a transfer of funding among schools.

“I can tell you what schools are going to take it on the chin,” Lanane said. “It’s going to be the urban area schools.”

Bosma said the state could achieve the GOP’s goals in part by pushing more dollars into the classroom. For years, Republican lawmakers have argued that at least 65 percent of the state money schools receive should be spent “in the classroom,” a phrase that’s defined in state law as “student instruction,” which includes spending on teachers, materials, instructional technology, social work, some administration and other costs.

The state has been tracking that percentage since 2008, when schools spent about 59.6 percent on student instruction, according to the Office of Management and Budget. In 2013, the percentage had dropped to 57.5 percent. The reduction came despite an emphasis on the issue by former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Long said that’s why lawmakers have to “keep trying.”

“If we haven’t been as effective as we want to be, we’ll redouble our efforts,” Long said. “It’s a necessary goal. We’ll roll up our sleeves and find an answer.”

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