Indiana lawmakers will scrutinize school funding, but virtual schools aren’t on the agenda this summer

Indiana lawmakers have decided how they’ll spend their summer vacation: taking a closer look at how schools use money from property tax measures and how the state funds education for students in poverty.

Legislative leaders chose those topics Tuesday for interim study committees, which will meet over the summer and fall ahead of next year’s legislative session. They have not yet assigned which lawmakers will sit on the interim study committees.

One topic will be noticeably absent: virtual schools’ finances. When lawmakers passed new regulations on Indiana’s troubled online schools in an attempt to make sure students remain engaged in classwork, they also asked for a panel to look at virtual schools’ spending. Legislative leaders ignored that request.

Through a spokeswoman, Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said lawmakers fielded more than 150 study topic requests and didn’t have time for all of them.

Indiana’s fast-growing virtual charter schools post poor academic results while collecting millions in state funding — most of which is funneled to for-profit operators, including online education giants Connections Academy, which is part of Pearson Education, and K12 Inc.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School also showed how the school paid millions to companies linked to the school’s founder — while hiring barely any teachers.

Lawmakers will also continue to examine career counseling in K-12 schools, weighing the effects of new graduation pathways meant to help better prepare students for careers after high school. Under the new requirements, districts are offering more ways for students to gain experience and skills in different careers.

But lawmakers are looking at whether districts have enough money to support career counseling, and whether graduation pathways are putting too much work on career counselors.

In general, Indiana already faces a problem of school counselors being overloaded, shouldering responsibilities for academic and career advising, social and emotional support, and administrative tasks. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

The closer look at funding for students in poverty comes after years of discussion over how much extra money high-poverty schools should receive, and how big of a gap that causes with wealthier suburban schools. Indiana’s Republican majority has favored spreading money more evenly between schools, causing funding to stagnate for high-needs districts. That controversy reignited this budget cycle, leading lawmakers to put more money toward students from low-income families than they initially planned.

The examination of school referendums is also timely. In Indiana, public school funding mostly comes from the state, and some school districts were hit hard by controversial property tax caps. So some districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools and other Indianapolis districts, have turned to asking voters to approve tax hikes to generate more money for schools.

But voters don’t always want to see their property taxes increase. For example, voters turned down four school referendums earlier this month. And last year, Indianapolis Public Schools had to substantially cut its two referendums in order to garner local support. The referendums were ultimately successful.

Lawmakers want to examine how schools are spending those extra funds, including how referendum dollars could affect teacher salaries — a critical issue facing the state.