State Superintendent Glenda Ritz asked lawmakers Thursday for $500 million in additional spending on education during the next two years – including more money for testing as well as free textbooks for all public school students.
Most of the new money – more than $334 million – would go to schools to pay for teacher salaries, utilities and other general costs. That would be an increase in state funding of 2 percent in Fiscal Year 2016 and 1.2 percent in 2015.
But Ritz told the State Budget Committee that testing to go with the state’s newly written curriculum standards could cost $65 million – up $20 million from the current program.
“We think that will be the cost,” Ritz cautioned the committee, which is gathering information about spending for the next two years as it prepares a draft of the next budget. “We don’t know for sure.”
The Department of Education is now taking bids for the new testing program, which will replace the current ISTEP exam and must be in place next year.
State Budget Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, asked Ritz why the state planned to create its own testing program, rather than buying an off-the-shelf model that had been designed by another state.
“I keep thinking we’re making it too hard,” Kenley said.
But Ritz said the testing program must encompass a number of parts, some of which are mandated by federal officials but some of which are state specific. In addition, the state has its own standards, something the General Assembly mandated.
Previously, the State Board of Education had adopted Common Core, a set of standards that are being used by more than 40 states, and Indiana was a part of a national organization that was creating a test to measure student knowledge of those standards.
But when the General Assembly moved away from Common Core, the state also dropped out of the group. Now the Board of Education is searching for a vendor to create a test that matches the state’s locally-written standards. Kenley said lawmakers will want a say in that test and the contract.
“Do we get to weigh in?” he asked Ritz. “Or just pay for what somebody else says?”
Ritz said the contract will likely be finalized before the 2015 legislative session is over and she said wasn’t sure what type of input lawmakers want. But Kenley pointed out that state law requires her to bring the proposed testing program to the State Budget Committee for review, which she agreed to do.
The superintendent also pitched her plan to offer free textbooks to all students. Currently, the state reimburses districts only textbook rentals for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch – and that money doesn’t generally pay the full cost. Ritz is proposing to expand that program to cover all of Indiana’s 1 million students.
That’s something Democrats have backed for years, but Republicans have been leery about. Kenley told Ritz that he’s concerned that schools won’t try to control their costs if the state is paying. “I’m struggling,” he told her, “to share this goal with you.”
Republican Gov. Mike Pence and GOP legislative leaders have said that they hope to boost education funding during the next two years. But Pence has said it’s too soon to propose precise amounts. Lawmakers will receive a forecast next week that will predict how much money they have available to spend during the next to years.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.