Republicans and Democrats in the Indiana House had plenty to disagree about before they voted down a proposed state budget, forcing a special legislative session. But in the thick of talks over state spending, a heated debate emerged about whether the growth of charter schools should be limited.
That discussion will likely continue as lawmakers try to find common ground on the budget, and state officials say the outcome could have multimillion-dollar implications for the state as it reaches for its share of federal stimulus money.
Indiana’s first 11 charter schools opened in 2002. The state now has 49 charter schools, which are alternative public schools that have more curriculum freedom than traditional schools and are largely clustered in urban areas. Critics say charter schools siphon money away from traditional schools, while supporters say they offer families educational choices.
The compromise budget proposal drafted largely by the GOP-led Senate would have limited each school district to one new charter school each year. That was a compromise Democratic House leaders were willing to make after first proposing a moratorium on new charter schools, said Rep. Scott Pelath (D-Michigan City).
“There is nothing wrong with taking a conservative, go-slow approach to entities that do have a direct impact on public schools in very tough times,” Pelath said.
But Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said the limits were one of the problems with the proposed budget.
“Its charter school legislation is disastrous as educational policy and destructive of the children’s futures in this state,” Daniels said. “The stimulus dollars we are counting on for the next year in education would be seriously at risk because of this very backwards policy.”
State schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican, wrote a letter to legislative leaders April 24 saying the limits on charter schools could prevent Indiana from receiving $270 million in stimulus money and hurt the state’s chances of winning part of $5 billion available in competitive grants.
The U.S. Department of Education said in its guidance about one portion of education stimulus money that states would have to commit to “education reforms” in four areas, and would have to report data, including whether they allow charter schools or have a cap on them.
The federal government would make the determination on whether Indiana is making the required progress in the four areas, Bennett said. But he believes the charter-school limits could put Indiana in danger of losing the money since President Barack Obama has urged states to lift limits on successful charter schools.
“They’ve been very consistent in the message from Washington that they want caps on charter schools lifted,” Bennett spokesman Cam Savage said. “It seems Indiana would be going in the complete opposite direction.”
Charter-school advocates hope lawmakers will heed that warning and remove the limits when they resume negotiations.
“That should be off the table,” said Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association.
But Dan Clark, deputy director for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the limits were a compromise between House Democrats and Senate Republicans and that the deal shouldn’t be broken.
“If either side tried to undo that agreement, it would be a great hindrance to a budget being concluded,” he said.
Daniels has not said when he will call lawmakers back to the Statehouse for a special session, although the current state budget expires June 30.
House Minority Leader Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said the charter-school limits will be a big sticking point for his caucus.
Democratic House Speaker Patrick Bauer of South Bend said he wasn’t sure how big of an issue charter schools could become once budget talks resume.
“That’s the problem with starting over,” Bauer said