Parents and educators plead with Indiana lawmakers not to cut aid for ‘those who need it most’

Dozens of educators and parents from across Indiana descended on the Statehouse on Thursday to urge lawmakers not to slash dollars sent to school districts for students from low-income families.

Most of the more than 50 people who testified before the state Senate’s school funding subcommittee criticized a House Republican proposal to cut $105 million for high-needs students in the state’s next budget. The proposal would leave some school districts — particularly those in urban and rural areas — with only slightly more funding than last year.

Tim Smith, superintendent of the school district in Anderson, testified that the so-called complexity funding is needed because as populations have become more economically diverse, more students need both “wraparound” supports, such as food and medical care, and academic supports to ensure they have the same opportunities as other students.

“Our schools today deal with so much more than they had to years ago,” Smith said. “Complexity is what schools are made of. And so while we want increased funding for our schools and our kids … we still have more services that we have to provide for children today than we ever have in our lives.”

For nearly five hours, senators listened to testimony against the cuts, which would take place over the next two years. House lawmakers have defended their budget, saying it adds in more money for the basic state aid that goes to every district, not just those with more challenges. The Senate will offer its own budget draft later this month or early next.

Emily Graham, an educator who works with students learning English in Logansport, said the district not only has a high population of students who speak multiple languages, but they are increasingly getting students who are immigrants or refugees, and might not have had much education at all. Students learning English bring in the same basic aid all students do, plus additional dollars set aside just for non-native English speakers. The state has increased this grant total each of the past two budget cycles, but the funding isn’t keeping up with growth, Graham said.

Students are coming every week, she said, “from Guatemala, but also Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic … that presents a whole new set of challenges for them and for us to educate them.”

Washington Township in Indianapolis, too, has seen its share of refugees, said Edward Curtis, a parent of students at Greenbriar Elementary School and Westlane Middle School.

“Don’t change the complexity formula. It takes money and gives it to those who need it most,” he said, remembering a student at Greenbriar he met who was a refugee from Syria and came in as a kindergartner speaking no English. When he met her as a parent volunteer, she was crying inconsolably. Today, a third-grader, she’s nearly fluent. That’s the work schools are facing, Curtis said, and why they need adequate funding to do it.

Rep. Jeff Thompson, testifying on behalf of the House budget-writers, suggested there could be a way the state might be able to phase-in the 15 percent cut to the state’s complexity funding, so districts aren’t hit so hard all at once, but he didn’t have more details.

“It will affect some schools in a more negative way,” Thompson, a Republican from Lizton, said. “We want to slow that process down, in my opinion.”

On average, under the House’s updated funding plan, districts in the state would see a 1.5 percent increase each year per-student looking at combined basic aid and complexity funding. But a number of urban schools would see that figure rise by just 0.58 percent, said David Marcotte, executive director representing the 38 districts part of the Indiana Urban Schools Association. And some, such as Goshen schools, would see it decline.

Also at the hearing, a number of current teachers and school leaders also brought up the state’s promise to increase pay for teachers, one of the biggest topics of this year’s legislative session. Many said tax credits for teachers who buy supplies and efforts to encourage districts to cut costs and put savings in raises doesn’t go far enough. Some teachers said their pay now is lower in real dollars than it was years ago.

Aaron Neblett, a business teacher from Jefferson High School in Lafayette, testified about the sticker shock he experienced upon getting his first paycheck in 2017 after a 12-year hiatus from teaching.

“My paycheck was lower in August of 2017 than it was when I left teaching in 2005,” he said.

Neblett’s colleague at Jefferson, Jennifer Smith-Margraf, a world language teacher, told lawmakers that her district sees about 17 percent of staff turn over each year. Some leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere, she said, but others find non-teaching jobs within the district that open the door to higher salaries. She remembers one former social studies teacher who left the classroom to become the district’s “energy czar,” a role responsible for making sure buildings are energy efficient. It paid $20,000 more than classroom teaching, she said.

The turnover and resulting loss of educators, particularly in smaller rural districts, is a “real crisis,” said Randy Studt, a world language teacher nearby in West Lafayette.

“The only reason we’ve been able to stay afloat in our community is our community agreed to step up and pass a referendum,” Studt said. “The hole in our budget was created by the state funding formula, not local choices.”

Scott Hottell, a social studies teacher at Angola Middle School in Steuben County, was more blunt.

“This is purely due to an economic situation forced upon us,” he said. “At the end of my teaching day, I watch professional educators clear the building to head to their second jobs.”

Senators on the committee said they don’t get to decide how districts spend their money or whether it gets funneled to teacher salaries.

“I have yet to talk to a legislator … that has an appetite for the legislature controlling teacher salaries,” said Sen. Eric Bassler, the committee chairman and a Republican from Washington.

Several education advocates agreed that they do not want lawmakers to micromanage what districts pay teachers. But, they pointed out, lawmakers have the sole power to decide how much money the state gives districts to begin with.

If lawmakers agree to put more money in the education budget, districts could both give raises and support students who have higher needs.

Marcotte, with the urban schools association, said the budget proposal had big equity issues, and the schools with the highest needs aren’t keeping up with their peers.

“We had almost five hours of testimony where everyone basically said the same thing,” Marcotte told Chalkbeat Thursday after the meeting. “There isn’t enough money to pay teachers more money and provide the kind of education that our kids deserve.”