Governor, House speaker say they’re committed to fully funding schools

Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston say they are committed to fully funding all schools this fall, after a letter from another Republican leader threw that into question for schools that opt for virtual-only instruction.

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray sent a letter to school leaders on Thursday that said there’s “no guarantee” schools that choose not to resume any in-person classes due to pandemic health and safety concerns will receive 100% of their expected per-pupil funding.

Under state law, schools receive only 85% of their per-pupil funding for students who receive at least half of their instruction virtually.

But in June, Holcomb promised to fund schools at the regular rate for all students, regardless of whether they were receiving instruction virtually or in-person. He said at the time that his administration and leaders of the Indiana General Assembly were in agreement on the issue and acknowledged then that the funding commitment would require legislative action.

Holcomb doubled down on that promise in a statement released Friday.

“As I’ve said before, I am committed to providing 100% funding to schools as they navigate the unprecedented challenges of opening the academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Holcomb said in the statement. “Many schools are returning with classroom instruction thanks to the herculean efforts of our public health officials, educators, students, parents, and communities. They all need our support now more than ever.”

Also on Friday, Huston made a similar statement, saying his caucus remains “committed to keeping our promise of supporting Indiana schools with 100% of their funding during these challenging times.”

“I am so appreciative of the leadership being shown by our schools in ensuring students and staff are safe and successful as they return, with most offering in-person instruction options,” Huston said in the statement. “The last thing we want is unnecessary distractions as everyone works tirelessly to begin the new school year safely and provide high-quality instruction to all students.”

Bray issued a statement on Friday that said his letter was not meant as a “change in position, nor as a threat to schools who are choosing not to reopen to in-person instruction, but as a clarification of previous comments.”

However, Bray said when the promise was made in June, the belief was that at least some in-person instruction would be offered in the fall, and his leadership team agreed then—and still does—that schools should receive the full funding amount for students whose families decide it’s best to do virtual learning rather than attending in person.

He said his team had not considered that some schools would not offer any in-person classes.

“In the past week, a number of internal conversations made it clear that it had become conventional wisdom among schools that they would receive full funding for virtual students even if remote learning was their only method of instruction for the school year,” Bray said in the statement. “Since this was not something my leadership team or I had considered, I felt it was necessary to clarify that agreement, because the underlying existing law says students receiving at least half of instruction virtually will only be funded at 85% of the foundation amount.”

Bray said he’s “happy to continue the conversation about how those schools that do not offer an in-person option for students are funded.”

Democratic lawmakers have sharply criticized Bray’s letter.

“These districts are being forced to strike an impossible balance between providing the best education to their students while protecting the health and safety of teachers, students and community members,” House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta said in a statement. “For Indiana Republicans to threaten massive cuts to districts who might have already decided that going fully virtual is best for their community is reckless and irresponsible, especially this late in the year and when cases are on the rise.”

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, said she and other school officials were “extremely disappointed” with Bray’s letter and urged Holcomb to call a special session of the Indiana General Assembly so the issue can be addressed. Holcomb’s statement did not address this request.

“A potential 15 percent cut per pupil is not sustainable at a time districts are working hard to create multiple learning platforms,” McCormick said in a statement. “Penalizing districts who cannot offer onsite instruction leads to dangerous decision making.”

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