INDIANAPOLIS – The leader of the GOP Indiana Senate threw a curveball at schools late Thursday – sending a letter that said to expect a 15% cut in funding if they provide only virtual instruction.
This is the opposite of what Gov. Eric Holcomb and the House and Senate budget leaders said in June – when promising schools would remain unscathed.
At issue is a law designed for full-time, permanent virtual schools setting funding per pupil at 85% of brick-and-mortar schools. That statute was not written with a pandemic in mind.
As of Thursday, 31 schools around the state are starting the year with remote learning only. Some of those decisions were made by schools and others were the result of county health departments prohibiting in-person instruction right now.
In June, Holcomb – with House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown and Senate Appropriations Chair Ryan Mishler – said a one-year waiver from the law would be given when leaders come back in January.
But in the letter Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray sent Thursday, he said “state leaders have said we favor fully funding students whose families choose virtual instruction this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I believe there is a strong appetite for making that change. However, there is no guarantee such an exception will be made for schools that don't give families the option of in-person instruction in a school building. Therefore, schools that don't offer in-person instruction should plan on operating under the current funding policy.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said she was extremely disappointed in Bray's letter – which came days after many schools have started.
“The fluidity created by this pandemic has already added undue burden to districts who are focused on establishing and maintaining safe learning environments for students and staff,” she said. “A potential 15% cut per pupil is not sustainable at a time districts are working hard to create multiple learning platforms. Penalizing districts who cannot offer onsite instruction leads to dangerous decision making.”
She urged Holcomb to honor his promise and call a special session to address the issue.
Holcomb responded Friday, “As I've said before, I am committed to providing 100% funding to schools as they navigate the unprecedented challenges of opening the academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools are returning with classroom instruction thanks to the herculean efforts of our public health officials, educators, students, parents, and communities. They all need our support now more than ever.”
Bray tried to clarify on Friday – saying the June comments were in regards to if parents chose not to send their children to school. If that was the case, schools would still get full funding.
“In June, as the number of COVID-19 cases was declining and Indiana continued to reopen, no one I spoke to was contemplating the idea that school districts would not offer any in-person instruction at all for the upcoming school year,” Bray said in a follow-up statement.
He added that this wasn't something his leadership team had considered.
“We can all agree that we should support our students, teachers, schools and families, but it is important to keep in mind that the funding law predates COVID-19 and that all of the funding issues we are discussing now will ultimately require legislative action,” Bray said.
House Democrat Leader Rep. Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said he was disappointed and dismayed to see Bray and Senate Republicans renege on their previous commitment.
“These districts are being forced to strike an impossible balance between providing the best education to their students while protecting the health and safety of teachers, students and community members,” he said. “For Indiana Republicans to threaten massive cuts to districts who might have already decided that going fully virtual is best for their community is reckless and irresponsible, especially this late in the year and when cases are on the rise.”