Indianapolis Public Schools, and other high-poverty school districts, will take a big financial hit under a compromise state budget plan proposed today, but it could have been worse.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making Ways and Means Committee, said funding for IPS would fall between what had been proposed in the separate House and Senate plans.
With one day left before the legislative session ends, the newest budget plan also calls for more aid for children in Kindergarten, charter schools and and private schools that receive tax-funded tuition vouchers. It also includes a tax credit for teachers who spend their own money to buy school supplies.
For the first time, the proposed budget would include extra aid to support English language learners as part of the funding formula rather than in a separate fund — a method experts say is more stable.
Overall, the state’s schools are still on track for raises totaling 2.3 percent in each year of the two-year budget, for a total of about $464 million more than what they receive now.
But not all schools are getting more money.
The state’s poorest schools and those with falling enrollment still expect to get less money, while wealthy and fast-growing districts get more.
IPS, for example, has had a severe cut on the horizon all year. The latest budget proposal would cost the district about $17 million in state aid over two years. Still, that is better than the House budget, which would have cost the district $32 million over two years, and the Senate, which proposed a cut of $22 million.
At the same time, the state’s two wealthiest districts — Carmel and Zionsville, would get $12 million more and $5 million more in state aid over the two-year budget.
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was happy that, after some persuasion, the legislature appears poised to adopt a budget friendlier to IPS.
“We’re pleased to see that the advocacy of our community members … was very productive,” he said. “We actually see an increase in funding for the 2016-17 school year in comparisons to what we have now.”
Republican leaders have argued that the gap between the extra aid high-poverty schools receive and the lesser amount wealthy schools get is too big.
The difference today between the highest aid district and the lowest is about $2,787 per student. The new budget plan would reduce that gap to less than $2,000. The more aggressive House budget could have cut the gap to about $1,600.
“We make significant progress on the gap between the highest and lowest spending schools,” Bosma said. “But we give softer landings to some of the urban schools that thought they suffered too much loss.”
Extra aid for poor children would be calculated using the Senate’s method, based on how many children receive welfare services or are in foster care, rather than the House method, which is based on the number of children who qualify for the federal free lunch program.
Still, the change from the current method brings much less aid than what high-poverty districts receive now.
There are several other big changes in the new budget plan, including:
The budget includes about $10 million for grants that charter schools can seek to help with transportation, facilities or other out-of-the-classroom costs. But that is much less than the original proposal in the House budget of $40 million.
Plus, the grants can only go to schools that can demonstrate good test performance under the new plan. Schools rated an A, B or C by the state automatically qualify, but schools rated a D or F can only receive the grants if they can demonstrate they score better than nearby traditional public schools they compete with.
Charter schools, for the first time, could access loans for school buildings from a state fund, but again, only if they qualify based on the same performance measures.
“It’s a nice position for all of us to say we’re helping, and it’s not at the expense of traditional public schools,” Bosma said. “I think it’s going to be very helpful.”
A cap of $4,800 for elementary school students who use publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition would be removed. Children could receive up to 90 percent of their home school district’s state tuition aid amount. The estimated additional cost to the state for the change is about $3.5 million.
The budget would remedy a long running complaint from school districts that they receive less state aid for children who attend all-day Kindergarten than for students in grades 1 through 12. The new formula would count students in Kindergarten as equal to those in other grades.
“A full-time Kindergarten student is treated as anyone else,” Bosma said.
English language learners
The new budget plan would roughly double the amount of extra money set aside to support programs for children learning English as a new language to $11 million.
Last week Chalkbeat reported that funding for English language learning has dropped dramatically per student at the very moment when schools are struggling with explosive growth of children who need them.
The state currently pays just $87 per student in extra aid to support English language learners, down from about twice as much a decade ago. Experts told Chalkbeat that Indiana’s funding approach — putting extra aid for English language learners in a separate fund — raises the likelihood that aid for those students will fall behind.
But the latest budget plan would both offer more aid for programs for children learning to speak English and add a funding mechanism for those programs to the school funding formula. That’s the way most states pay for those programs, and experts say the method is likely to make that aid more stable.
Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the series — jointly published by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media — helped raise awareness among lawmakers about the growing need for English language learning services.
“I think we’re all more reconciled to the point that this is really an amazing issue,” he said. “We have all these other languages now.”
In addition, lawmakers said aid would escalate for schools with more children learning to speak English, especially if those children are very limited in their knowledge of the language.
Schools evaluate English language learners using a test that rates them on a 1-to-6 scale. There would be more aid for children rated as most needy on that scale, Brown said.
“We wanted to look at those levels that needed a little more money,” Brown said.
Tax credit for teachers
A proposal to give teachers a $200 tax credit each year for money they spend on school supplies for their classrooms was cut in half to $100 in the latest budget plan.
“Half a loaf is better than none,” Bosma said. “You are getting at tax credit for every teacher, which is our goal.”