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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:42 pm

Education likely to top agenda of '15 legislative session

Niki Kelly The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – If NFL quarterback Johnny Manziel were an Indiana lawmaker, his infamous money sign hand gesture would be the symbol of the 2015 legislative session.

The Indiana General Assembly has about $30 billion to spend over the next two years, and the debate over how to spend the money begins Jan. 6.

"It’s probably the first time since I’ve been in, there really isn’t going to be one headline-grabbing controversy like in gay marriage or right-to-work," said Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne. "I think it will come down to education, education, education."

The monetary decisions will essentially be made by Republicans, who hold wide margins in both the House and Senate. But Democrats hope to guide the discussion toward helping low-income Hoosiers.

Indiana’s K-12 schools account for more than half of the budget and much of the discussion will center there. The debate will be twofold: funding and governance structure.

Both House and Senate GOP leaders say they want to put more money into education, but how that money is divided among districts through a school funding formula will be crucial.

Many lawmakers represent growing suburban districts that want more equity when it comes to per pupil state funding. There are wide variations around the state, from $5,000 per student to more than $7,000. This doesn’t include local property tax or federal dollars.

Gary Community Schools and Indianapolis Public Schools especially have high per pupil funding rates.

The disparity was created initially by a minimum guarantee in funding that Democrats insisted on for years despite a district losing students. Also, urban schools with high levels of poverty receive extra funds.

The Republicans have written the formula the last four years and have been slowly trying to transition schools to an equal target. But some GOP legislators are tired of waiting.

"Republicans have been painted as anti-public education. I don’t know if it’s fair, but we haven’t rebutted it," said Rep. David Ober, R-Albion. "This is a way to work with Democrats to fund public education in a way that is fair to everyone."

He said superintendents around the state are bending their representatives’ ears.

"It has become the haves and the have-nots and it has stirred hard feelings among districts," Ober said. "They are so frustrated because they don’t feel they are getting enough resources to fulfill their mission. Adding vouchers on top of that has reached a breaking point."

Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, said the current formula emphasizes poverty too much.

"More and more of us in the rural areas have been questioning the formula because more populated areas are getting up to $7,000 per student and we are more at the base rate," she said. "We are just questioning whether or not we are getting our fair share."

But Democrats point out that schools with higher poverty, single parents and other factors traditionally cost more to educate. That’s the entire reason a complexity index was added to the formula.

"We’re ready for a fair school funding formula. One that lifts all boats and doesn’t create winners and losers," said Senate Democrat Leader Tim Lanane.

GiaQuinta also noted that Fort Wayne Community Schools doesn’t have funding as high as Gary and IPS but could get hurt in any drastic changes.

A second major education issue will be whether lawmakers gut the powers of the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Democrat Glenda Ritz holds the post now while the appointed State Board of Education has a majority of Republicans. This has caused innumerable clashes and ongoing tension as both Ritz and the board attempt to control education policy in the state.

One proposal is to make the superintendent position appointed by the governor rather than elected. A second option is to remove the superintendent as chair of the State Board of Education, instead allowing the board to choose its own leader. The superintendent would still be on the panel.

"It’s like a couple little kids fighting and wanting to take credit for things," said Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington. "It’s ridiculous. I don’t know that I have the answer for that but there needs to be a discussion on education policy and structure in this state. We need to think about the kids."

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said his caucus has had only limited discussion about the issue.

He pointed out Indiana is the only state to have an elected superintendent chair the state board of education.

Long doesn’t see changing it to an appointed position in 2016 but does support removing Ritz as head of the state board.

"The board of education is supposed to be the boss. The model we have is proving dysfunctional," he said. "I think it’s very important for the board to choose its own chair. I think it will operate more effectively.

Long also argued it would not reduce Ritz’s power because she will still run the Indiana Department of Education.

"The board has responsibility to make state policy and not the department," he said. "It’s our responsibility to step up and make this system work."

nkelly@jg.net