By Jacob Rund
Democrats called into question Tuesday the way Gov. Mike Pence wants to distribute education funding in the two-year budget he’s given to the House Ways & Means Committee.
Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, took issue with the amount of money the governor is seeking to allocate to charter schools and their students – which Delaney said accounts for roughly 6 percent of the state’s school children.
Pence’s proposed budget would give an additional $1,500 per pupil grant to charter schools, lift the $4,800 voucher cap for grades 1-8, and increase the scholarship granting organization tax credit by $5 million. The change in the voucher cap would cost the state $4 million.
Overall, Pence allocated $200 million more for K-12 schools in his proposed budget for the next biennium, but Delaney said he wondered how much of that money would actually go to traditional public schools – where close to 94 percent of Indiana’s students attend.
Indianapolis Democrat Greg Porter, the ranking minority member of the House Ways & Means Committee, said he wonders why the governor’s budget “flat-lined” the amount of money used to provide free textbooks to students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, especially considering the Department of Education also asked for increased textbook reimbursement funding. The state requires free textbooks for those students but doesn’t provide enough money to fully reimburse schools for the cost.
“One reason is just priorities,” Office of Management and Budget Policy Director Chris Atkins said. “We wanted to increase tuition support (for K-12 schools) instead of textbooks.”
Atkins, who presented the governor’s $30.5 billion, two-year budget to the committee along with State Budget Director Brian Bailey, also said increasing the funding for individual school corporations would give them the capability to provide more free textbooks on their own if they should choose to do so.
Democrats also keyed in on Pence’s focus on bulking up Indiana’s coffers. The budget proposal would leave about $2 billion in the bank at the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
“It seems to me that you are managing the budget surplus to forecast for inflation, you’re not managing it to the public’s needs, which strikes me as more important,” Delaney said.
Pence is proposing to use some of the state’s reserves pay for several one-time expenditures in cash. But Delaney said that money could be used to lower tuition and help local governments build and repair roads.
“We would agree that we have to focus on the needs of the public,” Atkins said. “I think defining the needs of the public has to be broad, and has to include not just what we need to do in K-12 and Medicaid, (but) it also has to include what taxpayers can afford, not only in the next two years, but in the next ten or twenty years as well.”
Jacob Rund is assistant editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.