Indiana lawmakers advance bills to ensure school funding

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers are expediting two similar bills intended to ensure schools receive full funding for all students, regardless of whether they are receiving instruction virtually or in the classroom due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The draft bills were filed in the House and Senate at the start of the 2021 Legislative session, both redefining what constitutes a “virtual student” and ensuring there would be no reduction in per-student funding for traditionally in-person schools.

A twice-yearly count of students attending schools is used to determine how much money the state allots to each facility. According to the bills, students will not be counted as “virtual” on Feb. 1 even if most or all of their learning takes place online.

Without that change, millions of dollars would be on the line for schools offering instruction online only. Current state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of full in-person student funding.

That would mean school districts using hybrid formats or that only offer online instruction to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 could lose 15{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of their basic per-student funding, amounting to $855 per student.

House Bill 1003 unanimously passed the Ways and Means committee Wednesday and could get passed out of the chamber as early as next week. Senate Bill 2 was heard before the Senate’s committee for Education and Career Development the same day, although it’s likely to take several weeks before it’s eligible for a vote.

“We appreciate that this is a priority of the General Assembly, and that it’s moving forward quickly,” said executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, Denny Costerison, at the Statehouse Wednesday. “What we’re looking for is fairness — to continue the funding that was considered to be right when the budget was passed in 2019.”

Still, the bills are temporary fixes because they would expire at the end of the spring 2021 semester. While there were requests in both committees Wednesday to extend the date for the definition change — such as for the full 2021-22 academic year — Rep. Tim Brown, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that amendment was unlikely. Instead, Brown suggested lawmakers should wait to make decisions about future school funding until after larger state budget models are discussed.

The Legislature also doesn’t face a hard deadline of passing the bills before the February count date because the money distributed based on those enrollment figures won’t be sent to school districts until later in the spring, Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said.

“We would rather have this done so that the schools know going into the count how that’s going to work,” Bray said. “I feel very optimistic that this will pass both the House and the Senate with very broad support for it.”

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{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of state funding for each of their students, no matter how they receive their instruction.

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