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State superintendent requests shift in House budget funds

March 19, 2015

Indiana's state schools superintendent asked lawmakers Thursday to shift money that a House budget plan allocated for charter schools to public schools instead and also outlined her plan to cut the cost of student testing.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz told the Senate Appropriations Committee that nearly $60 million in the proposed House budget could be diverted toward additional funding for school districts.

Her plan includes eliminating $40 million that's been proposed in additional grants for charter schools. Ritz said the funding is a drain on public resources and that it could be put to better use improving student performance and paying teacher salaries.

"I really feel that the charters are public schools," Ritz said. "So they all should be afforded the same type of funding mechanism."

Ritz's proposals come as Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP-controlled Legislature are pushing to increase funding for charter and private-school voucher programs. Both are key items on the governor's agenda for this session.

Pence's spending plan submitted to lawmakers in January would provide $1,500 more per student to attend a charter school, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $41 million over two years, slightly above what House lawmakers proposed.

Ritz, a Democrat who is frequently at odds with the governor, also recommended shifting funds away from the State Board of Education and Pence's freedom to teach program, which would give the board the authority to grant schools waivers from some requirements that guide teacher compensation.

She said rewarding teachers for excellent work is an "important conversation to have," but "those are local issues" and instead of spending $4 million to implement the program, lawmakers should call for further study on how to retain talented educators.

The money should instead be used to boost funding for students learning English, career and technical education and school technology, and providing a $1,000 tax deduction for textbooks to all families, she said.

Currently, only families that choose private or home schooling qualify for the deduction.

Ritz also laid out her plan for the state's ISTEP exams, which doubled in length this year to about 12 hours, causing an outcry from parents and schools.

Lawmakers took last-minute action and shaved off about three hours, but there are still concerns about how much it will cost taxpayers to administer.

Ritz's plan calls for eliminating the IREAD test in 3rd grade and the 11th grade college and career readiness test. Her version could be administered for nearly $75 million over two years, which is about half of what she originally estimated in December. It's also about $60 million less than what the state would have to pay outside vendors to administer student testing.

A bill moving through the Legislature would move Indiana from the ISTEP+ exam to an unspecified national test after June 30, 2016.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican, has said he thinks Indiana would be better off using an "off-the-shelf" set of tests.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said Thursday that lawmakers were working on the bill, but that it is a complicated issue to tackle in the short time of a legislative session.

"I think we all agree that we would like less testing and more streamlined testing," he said. "How we get there is somewhat difficult to conclude."

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