State Superintendent Glenda Ritz wants lawmakers to start spending another $70 million annually to make textbooks free for all Hoosiers.
But it’s going to be a tough sell.
Democrats have tried for years to get majority Republicans to go along with the idea. But the hefty price tag has always put them off – and it’s likely it will again.
Budget writers are already feeling a little skittish about the state’s bottom line. Indiana – which operates on a $28 billion, two-year budget – is in pretty good fiscal shape, with more than $2 billion in reserves and revenues generally hitting projections.
But with the state proposing to implement a new health care plan for lower-income Hoosiers, casino revenue falling in the face of new competition and talk of expanding the state’s new pre-kindergarten program, there’s not likely to be a lot of extra cash just floating around.
Consider that, overall, Ritz is proposing a 3 percent increase in total state school funding for K-12 schools. Within that total is additional base funding for schools – called tuition support – which districts use to pay teachers, utility bills and other general expenses.
It’s also the money that most schools want most because it’s the most flexible. It’s not earmarked for any specific spending.
Ritz is proposing a 2 percent increase in tuition support in Fiscal Year 2016 and another 1 percent in 2017. Those are fairly modest increases. Still, they will cost the state another $400 million over two years.
And despite that cost, Republicans are more likely to fund higher overall spending on tuition support than they are free textbooks.
Ritz, a Democrat, wants both.
She argues that Indiana is one of only eight states that requires parents to pay for textbook rentals and instructional materials.
“I am very concerned with the costs that parents pay associated with the education of their children,” Ritz said.
“Our constitution provides for a general and uniform school system that is equally open to all,” she said. “That is why we have requested funding for textbook rentals and instructional materials for all students.”
Already, students who qualify for free and reduced lunch also qualify for textbook assistance, which the state reimburses, although not always fully. In some cases, schools have to dip into funding from other areas to make up the difference. Plus, there are some families who just never pay. Those are problems that obviously hit schools in lower-income districts harder than those wealthier ones.
“By funding (instructional materials) at the state level, we can guarantee that all districts have equitable resources for texts while also giving parents a much needed financial break,” Ritz said.
But free textbooks will have to fight for space with a number of other programs or proposals that need funding. Among them will be efforts to streamline the state’s tax system, expand preschool, expand vouchers and new efforts to encourage the adoption of special needs kids.
If history is a guide, free textbooks probably won’t make the cut.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.