House GOP budget plan calls for school spending boost

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Indiana's public schools would see a $469 million increase in funding in the new two-year state budget under a proposal released Monday by majority House Republicans that also includes an additional $40 million in grants for charter schools.

The plan calls for 2.3-percent boosts in school funding during both budget years, while maintaining a state surplus of about $1.8 billion. The school spending increase is more than double the $201 million hike that Republican Gov. Mike Pence proposed in January.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said the House plan increases the base per-student funding enough to close the gap between fast-growing suburban districts and those in urban and rural areas that are losing enrollment.

Republican leaders have called the current funding system unfair because some districts receive more than $2,700 more in per-student support than others. That's left many fast-growing suburban districts scrounging for cash, while poorer districts in many urban and rural areas get additional money to serve students such as those in poverty and those learning English.

Brown said the increase in base per-student funding would close the widest gap between districts to about $1,600 in the second year of the budget.

Brown said he believed the proposal provides "adequate and equal" funding for schools.

"I feel good about it," he said. "I feel good that we're able to give such large increases, that we made that a priority and that we'll be able to have a building block for the future."

Pence had requested $1,500 more per student for charter schools at an estimated cost of $41 million over the two years to provide funding for building work and transportation that traditional school districts receive through local property taxes.

The House budget plan sets aside a two-year total of $40 million that will be available in grants of up to $1,500 per student. But Brown said those charter school grants weren't counted in the school funding increase amount.

The House plan also includes about $4 million to fund Pence's request to drop the cap of $4,800 per elementary school pupil enrolled in the state's private school voucher program, which serves some 30,000 students.

Democrats have argued that additional voucher and charter school spending will come at the expense of traditional public schools.

Rep. Greg Porter, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said the budget should have greater transparency by specifying how much money is going toward traditional public schools, charter schools and the private school voucher program. That's a proposal Republican leaders have rejected.

"Let the public see where the money really is going," said Porter, D-Indianapolis. "If you can hide and put a mask over it, then no one ever knows."

The Republican budget plan strips out $51 million that Pence's proposal included for prison expansions at the Miami Correctional Facility near Peru and the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Sullivan. The House plan, instead, directs about $90 million toward grants to support local community corrections and jail prisoner diversion programs.

That comes after changes took effect in July to Indiana's criminal sentencing laws that were aimed in part at reducing the need for more prison space by sending more low-level offenders to local programs.

"We're trying to keep people out of jail who don't need to be in jail and hopefully decrease our prison population," Brown said.

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