Indiana lawmakers pass bill to ensure school funding

A Senate bill aimed at ensuring Indiana’s public schools receive full funding for all students during the coronavirus pandemic is headed to the governor after lawmakers fast-tracked its passage Tuesday.

The bill redefines what constitutes a “virtual student” and ensures schools receive full funding for all students, regardless of whether they are receiving instruction virtually or in the classroom due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A twice-yearly count of students attending schools is used to determine how much money the state allots to each facility. According to the Senate bill, students will not be counted as “virtual” in the most recent fall and spring counts, even if most or all of their learning takes place online.

Without that change, an estimated $160 million would be on the line for schools using hybrid formats or offering instruction online only as a means to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19. Current state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85% of full in-person student funding.

The proposal prompted criticism from virtual learning supporters who questioned why the 85% rule exists at all, noting that the legislation exempts regularly fulltime virtual schools.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ryan Mishler additionally argued that the bill encourages kids to stay home and receive virtual education, which he said causes them to fall behind.

Most Indiana schools offered both in-person and online options this school year, though some have gone fully virtual at times during periods of peak coronavirus spread.

Still, the bill is a temporary fixes because they would expire at the end of the spring 2021 semester. While Democratic lawmakers requested extensions—in addition to language that would always exempt brick-and-mortar schools from the 85% reduction in funding—Rep. Tim Brown, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers would wait to make decisions about future school funding until after larger state budget models are discussed.

State officials in September approved a similar method to maintain full funding for school districts during the fall semester. Legislators are now the ones tasked with finding a funding solution for the second half of the academic year.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is expected to sign the legislation. He has maintained that he’s committed to not cutting education funding — even as other state agencies have reduced budgets. He also promised school leaders last summer they would receive 100% of state funding for each of their students, no matter how they receive their instruction.

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