Indiana legislators eye school funding revamp

Indiana lawmakers could face a prickly debate as they aim to tighten up funding differences between the state's school districts during the General Assembly session that starts Tuesday.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said the current system is unfair because some districts receive more than $2,000 more in per-student support than others. That's left many fast-growing suburban districts scrounging for cash, while poorer — and often shrinking — districts in many urban and rural areas get more money to serve students in poverty and those learning English.

Revenue projections indicate the Republican-dominated Legislature won't have much additional money to work with as it puts together a new two-year state budget by the end of April. And other education items will be competing for funding, including Gov. Mike Pence's proposal to lift the cap on the state's private school voucher program and increase funding for charter schools.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said all those education plans "could be pretty expensive."

"I just doubt there's going to be enough money to take every education initiative that everybody is going to come up with and make it work," Kenley said. "It all depends on having the money."

Spending on K-12 education makes up nearly half of the current year's $15 billion state budget. But tax revenue is projected to grow just 2.4 percent during the new budget's first year and 3.2 percent in the second year.

That could create challenges for legislative leaders as they try to boost the base per-student funding enough to close the gap and address Pence's call to expand the voucher program that currently serves 30,000 students. Currently, vouchers are capped at $4,800 per elementary school pupil.

Leaders of some urban and rural districts worry that they'll end up being hurt.

Many districts can't absorb funding cuts without hurting school programs and their ability to help attract businesses, said Robert Haworth, superintendent of the Elkhart Community Schools in northern Indiana.

The 13,000-student Elkhart district is among the better funded in the state, with more than half its students qualifying for the federal free lunch program. It also has a large Hispanic immigrant population, with Haworth saying much of its additional funding goes toward teaching English to about 4,000 students.

"The narrowing of that gap is not served by bringing those that have greater funding down, it's by creating a floor in funding that no school district should fall below," he said.

On the opposite end of the scale among Indiana's nearly 300 districts is Hamilton Southeastern Schools in suburban Indianapolis, where state funding has fallen by $300 per student since 2009, according to district Chief Financial Officer Mike Reuter.

The district, which has grown 50 percent over the past decade and now has some 21,000 students, has some third- and fourth-grade classes with more than 30 pupils and a single teacher, Reuter said.

Residents approved a property tax increase in 2009 to provide extra money, and the district has sold some property to make ends meet. But Reuter said school programs will start to suffer without more money from the state.

"We won't be able to keep up with what we've done in the past," he said. "We understand that other districts need money, too, but don't leave us behind."

Politics could enter the funding debate, as Republicans largely represent the state's suburban and rural districts, while most of the badly outnumbered Democratic legislators are from urban areas.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he worries that revamping the funding system will pit school districts against each other and end up hurting urban districts that are struggling to improve student performance.

Lanane said he also is concerned about proposals to take away authority from Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and called Pence's push for removing the cap on state voucher payments a "risky proposition."

"We just headed down this idea of vouchers and now to say we want to increase it even more," he said. "We ought to put the brakes on it."

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