Starting on the wrong foot

School funding bill off to rocky start after complaints of “ambush”

Reps. Bob Rankin and Millie Hamner had to defend their school finance bill against complaints that it was rushed.

Everybody likes the fact that the proposed 2016-17 school finance bill doesn’t increase the K-12 funding shortfall, but the measure’s rushed introduction Monday ruffled a lot of feathers.

The measure would allocate $6.4 billion for basic school operations in 2016-17, up from $6.2 billion this school year. The bill would hold the K-12 funding shortfall, often called the negative factor, at $831 million, the same level as this year. See the chart at the bottom of this article for the impact on individual districts.

The bill is seen as modest good news for school districts, who’ve faced tight funding since 2009, when declines in state revenues forced substantial cuts. The state constitution requires base K-12 funding – about 75 percent of total support – to increase every year by inflation and enrollment. The bill does that.

Holding the shortfall to $831 million is considered a victory because projections made before the session convened put that figure as high as $905 million.

The bill would set average per-pupil funding at $7,424, up from this year’s $7,312.

The bill’s rushed introduction left members of the House Education Committee scrambling to understand it when they convened only about 90 minutes after House Bill 16-1442 was formally introduced.

“To rush this most important bill through the process” was unfair to members and to the state’s school districts, said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

Sen. Owen Hill, whose Senate Education Committee will hear the bill later, was more blunt. “I was shocked. … This ambush was unacceptable,” arguing that House members were ambushed because they faced with voting on a bill they didn’t had time to review.

Wilson and a couple of other GOP members harped on the issue throughout the 80-minute hearing, to the irritation of chair Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

Bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner said the measure came up when it did because it needs to move in tandem with the main state budget bill, also introduced Monday. The budget and companion measures, including school finance, were finished over the weekend, so Monday was the first opportunity to introduce them. The Dillon Democrat is chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

She said the school measure is “a bill we should all be cheering about.”

Her cosponsor, Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, also tried to downplay the complaints. “I don’t think there are many major issues we can’t deal with despite the short notice.” He noted that the JBC had to trim other parts of the budget like transportation and Medicaid in order to set school funding at the proposed levels.

Democrats control the House, so a few irritated Republicans aren’t likely to change the bill much. The GOP-majority Senate may be more troublesome for the bill.

Hill said rushed House consideration of the bill short-changed public review and testimony. He indicated Senate Education will take a longer look at the bill and likely will consider amendments to expand parent choice. Hill was mad enough about the situation that he sent out an email blast criticizing what the House did.

The House panel spent a lot of time on two secondary elements of the bill.

The first of those would change current state law that sets minimum funding for very small districts at 50 students, even if they have a smaller number of actual students. The bill proposes a system under which the floor would be 30 students for the very smallest districts.

The change could be a big blow to the 19-student Agate district on the eastern plains. Hamner proposed an amendment that would delay the cut for Agate by a year, but the committee voted that down.

Another section of the bill would modestly increase funding for a handful of districts that have between 4,000 and 5,000 students. Some of the affected districts are in Hamner and Rankin’s House districts. Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, said that “benefits the sponsors, which we’ll discuss on the floor.”

The committee passed the finance bill 9-2. It goes Tuesday to the House Appropriations Committee, along with the main budget, House Bill 16-1405. That hearing should be a formality, but finance bill debate on the floor later this week could be lively.

Learn more about the bill is this analysis by legislative staff.

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Sen. Dennis Kruse

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 14 and parts of Allen and Dekalb counties. So far, has served 13 years in the Senate (current) and 15 years in the House. Kruse began his career as a teacher in 1970, spending five years in the classroom. Once he left education, he became an auctioneer and got involved in real estate.

What he’s known for: Kruse has served as Senate Education Committee chairman for eight years. While he is a less vocal advocate for choice-based education reform measures than his House counterpart, Kruse is a staunch conservative who has pushed — with varying levels of success — for incorporating more religion in public schools.

Career highlights: In 2011, Kruse was the author of Senate Bill 1, a massive bill that established the state’s formal teacher evaluation system. He has also consistently supported bills seeking to improve school discipline, before- and after-school programs and teacher preparation. This year, Kruse has authored bills dealing with school start dates, contracts for district superintendents, school employee background checks and testing.

On religion in schools: Kruse and fellow Sen. Jeff Raatz introduced a resolution this year that, according to the National Center for Science Education, has the “teaching of evolution” as “the specific target of the bill.” Previously, Kruse has put forward other legislation that would encourage the teaching of creationism and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day, but none of the bills passed. In 2015, Kruse was also a co-author of the controversial religious freedom bill.

On toeing the party line: Despite his conservative politics, Kruse doesn’t always line up with the will of his party. Republican leaders this year are calling for making the state superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position, but Kruse won’t back the switch. Instead, Kruse has said he believes in elections and that people should get to make choices about their representation.

For that reason, some have speculated that’s why the senate’s version of the bill bypassed his education committee and instead was heard through the elections committee.

Who supports him: Kruse has received campaign contributions from Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Education Networks of America, a private education technology company.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.

seesaw

Tennessee required more recess, but teachers now say it’s too much

PHOTO: Jon Zlock, LEAD Public Schools
Nashville students play during recess at a charter school operated by LEAD Public Schools.

For years, Jamie Petty’s sixth-grade students didn’t have recess — a problem, he thought, since research shows that recess keeps children healthy and focused.

Then Tennessee’s legislature passed a requirement last year that students through the sixth grade get a minimum of two 20-minute periods of non-structured physical activity at least four days a week.

Now play time is overtaking valuable class time, says Petty, a world history teacher at Normal Park Magnet Middle School in Chattanooga. He said one daily period of recess should suffice.

“Physical activity is so important for the kids, and we definitely want that,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to protect instructional time, too.”

Lawmakers have heard similar concerns from educators across Tennessee since the school year started.

“We passed a bill, and it was a fiasco,” said Rep. Bill Dunn.

The Knoxville Republican wants to rein in recess in Tennessee schools. On Wednesday, his bill to do so was approved by a House education subcommittee. Instead of daily mandates of three 15-minute periods for kindergarten and two 20-minute periods for grades 2-6, the bill would institute weekly requirements of 130 minutes of physical activity for elementary schools and 90 minutes for middle and high schools.

Lawmakers hope the change will give schools more flexibility to fit recess into their schedules.

Dunn’s bill also would allow recess to include “structured play.” Last year’s legislation said students must have “non-structured” play, meaning teachers can’t organize sports or games.

Teachers argue that both kinds of play have value.

Kennisha Cann, a literacy coach with Hamilton County Schools, occasionally leads students in games to get the wiggles out. “Kids need to learn how to follow directions, take turns, how to socialize with other children,” she said.

Either way, many educators are happy that the legislature is recognizing the importance of recess.

“Standards are so much harder now,” said Pat Goldsmith, a school psychologist at Chattanooga’s Red Bank Elementary Schools. “Students really need that break.”