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School funding vagaries dogging lawmakers past sessionís end

Among the items tucked in the just-approved Indiana state budget was an additional $7.4 million for public schools in Gary and Indianapolis, provided the school districts agree to withdraw their claims challenging money diverted to turnaround school operators.

A Marion County judge ruled last year that the Indiana Department of Education, under former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, improperly paid EdisonLearning Inc., Charter Schools USA and EdPower to run one school in Gary and two Indianapolis schools.

Their funding was based on 2011-12 enrollment counts, but far fewer students showed up when the turnaround managers took over last fall.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, inserted the line item for the public school districts in an effort to end the legal standoff.

The state has indicated it will appeal the judge’s ruling, but the public school districts have the support of Bennett’s successor, Glenda Ritz, in securing all of the money they should have received when students opted not to enroll in the turnaround schools and instead transferred to other public schools in Gary and Indianapolis.

“In both the House and Senate budget committees, Superintendent Ritz requested that our public schools be made whole,” Ritz spokesman Daniel Altman told the Times of Northwest Indiana.

“She was disappointed to see that the Legislature funded expanded school choice but failed to fully fund obligations to public schools that an independent court ordered.”

The schools have until June 2015 to decide if they will accept a partial reimbursement. Indiana lawmakers, however, should decide before then whether they are truly committed to their philosophy of the money following the student or if that only applies when the money is going to a for-profit operator.