State lawmakers to review education spending in session

How much money schools should receive to educate every student — including kindergartners — will be among key discussions for state lawmakers this year.

State lawmakers will need to

review whether the formula used to fund school districts is unbalanced, giving too much money to school districts with lots of low-income students — a concern local school officials have raised. But they’ll also consider whether it’s time to start fully funding full-day kindergarten programs, which would help local schools facing funding shortfalls.

But some local lawmakers say educational funding isn’t a simple issue, and they think some of the discussions could last for years.

One of the key issues state lawmakers have identified for this year’s legislative session is the formula that determines how much money school districts receive for each student they have enrolled.

Right now, school districts with a greater number of students living at or near the poverty line receive more funding per student — sometimes thousands more — than other school districts. For example, Center Grove receives about $5,000 per student, while Edinburgh schools receives about $6,400 per student. Superintendents across the state, including Richard Arkanoff at Center Grove schools, said they believe the formula needs to be adjusted so that residents’ tax dollars are going into their local schools.

Another key issue is funding for full-day kindergarten. Right now, the state provides half as much money to school districts for kindergartners as it does for first- through 12th-graders. The state provides additional funding for schools that offer full-day kindergarten programs, but some school districts, including Clark-Pleasant, Greenwood, Edinburgh and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson, don’t receive enough to cover the full cost of their full-day programs.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, is sponsoring a bill that would fully fund schools’ full-day kindergarten programs.

School officials said they believe students are better prepared for lessons in higher grades if they’re in kindergarten for a full day, and Tallian said the state needs to start fully funding kindergarten to ensure students are receiving the best education possible.

“This is about priorities,” she said.

Locally, State Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland, and State Rep. John Price, R-Greenwood, know there are benefits to full-day kindergarten, but it’s unclear right now where money to fully fund the all-day classes would come from, they said.

The state also has to consider how well-prepared Indiana’s high school students are for college and their careers, and whether anything can be done to better equip them for the future, Price said.

“I think we have an investment in those young adults, and we have to follow through with our commitment to get them educated,” he said.

Both lawmakers also want to review the funding formula to see how it could be adjusted and to ensure schools are fairly funded.

“It definitely warrants us looking into it and having those discussions,” Price said. “It’s something we can’t ignore. It’s something we’re going to have to address.”

But reviewing the existing formula to see what needs to be changed could take at least five years, said Burton, who is a member of the state’s education committee.

School districts with more students from low-income families typically use the extra state

dollars they receive to pay for aides, tutors and other staff members who help students who need help with math, English and other essential lessons. Burton and Price know that’s essential for some students who can’t get that help at home.

“You can’t just yank something away and give it to (somebody) else,” Burton said.

But it’s also important not to penalize school districts with high test scores and graduation rates by limiting their funding, Price and Burton said.

“We’re going to take a look at possibly, over time, moving some of that (money) to make it more fair and balanced,” Burton said.

But that work can’t happen quickly, because some school districts depend on every dollar they receive from the state to pay for their teachers and staff. That’s why state lawmakers need to work with the Indiana Department of Education to see how schools are spending their state dollars, and whether any improvements in that spending can be made, Burton said.

“I feel like we’ve held the line on education very well and gotten rid of waste in a lot of areas,” Burton said. “But it’s time now to make sure we’re properly funding schools.”

At a glance

State lawmakers will spend much of the current legislative session reviewing and possibly making changes to school funding. Here are some of the topics expected to come up:

Funding formula: Lawmakers will consider whether to change the way the state funds schools

Full-day kindergarten: Lawmakers will consider whether to fund kindergarten as equally as grades one through 12

Transportation: Lawmakers could consider whether to change the way schools receive money for busing

Textbooks: Lawmakers also will consider whether to end textbook fees