WHITE COUNTY, Ind. (WLFI) - Thirteen local school districts from seven different counties came together Monday night as one voice to oppose several pieces of state legislation that do not support public education. This is the first joint school board meeting of its kind in Indiana.
Educators across the state have been pushing hard for more public school funding since the Red for Ed Rally at the Indiana Statehouse in November of 2019, but many feel their demands are falling on deaf ears. According to Business Insider, Indiana ranks 38th in the nation in terms of teacher pay.
Governor Eric Holcomb's Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission released its report in December, which emphasizes the need to increase teacher pay to attract more high quality educators and retain them.
"92% of the kids in Indiana attend public schools," said J.T. Coopman, Executive Director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. "Why are we diverting money away from the majority of kids?"
The schools who had voting quorum with school board attendance were Benton Central, Carroll Consolidated, Delphi, Eastern Pulaski, North Newton, North White, Pioneer and Tri-County. Four other schools had representation there to support the resolution: Rensselaer, Kankakee Valley, West Central and Frontier.
The eight voting schools unanimously passed a resolution opposing three pieces of proposed legislation: House Bill 1005, Senate Bill 413 and Senate Bill 412. Educators who attended Monday's meeting want to make their voice loud and clear to Indiana lawmakers.
"It's time that our state legislators put public education first," said Alesia Brown, an elementary teacher at Carroll Consolidated.
"Small rural schools are the life blood of our communities," said Kate Daily, President of the Eastern Pulaski Teacher's Association.
"Public schools have been pushed to the breaking point," said a representative from the Rensselaer Teacher's Association. "We've watched programs disappear, class sizes increase and teachers leave the profession."
"What else is it going to take to make our elected officials stand with public schools?" asked the President of the Eastern Pulaski School Board.
"Without high quality public schools, our democracy is going to crumble," said Coopman, who was the keynote speaker at the meeting.
Indiana public schools are getting a pay increase of 3.5% over the biennium, as the current budget bill reads, but the educators at Monday's meeting say it's not enough. Especially since House Bill 1005 would take money that could be going to public schools and is expanding the voucher program for private and charter schools to an unlimited amount of vouchers.
Charter schools were first introduced in Indiana in the late 1990's as a way to help innovate the ways of education. They were supposed to just be for low income kids who want better education options. But since then, Coopman said "entrepreneurs" have realized how profitable these schools are and have lobbied Indiana lawmakers to continue to increase funding to them.
"To have another 3% of that money going into vouchers when we need it to fund our schools and pay our teachers is just wrong," he said. "These charter schools testified that we can do it better and cheaper, and that's how they got their foot in the door. But now they say we need more money, we don't have property taxes like public schools have and we need a portion of every school district's property tax. I disagree with that. We need a portion of any district that does a referendum, no you don't."
It also significantly raises the household poverty income threshold for vouchers. Many of these vouchers are to private schools that are religiously affiliated. The argument of public school educators is that these private schools are taking public money and yet they don't have the same level of scrutiny and rules for how they use that money. It also brings up issues of the separation of church and state.
"The threshold for House Bill 1005 for a family of four in poverty is $145,000. And that number goes up to $174,000 in 22, 23," said Coopman. "Does that sound like living in poverty to you?"
The federal income poverty threshold for a family of four is $26,500 per year.
Senate Bills 412 and 413 would divert funding towards educational savings accounts. A family would get a debit card with $5,000 to $7,000 thousand state dollars on it for them to spend on educational services. Coopman said they have been fighting ESA legislation for about the past three legislative sessions.
"There's no accountability, there's no oversight, there's no how did you spend this money, there's no justifying how you spent the money," said Coopman. "In other states that have this the abuse has been horrendous."
SB 412 died in the Senate, but SB 413 is still alive and is tailored to only families who have foster children or kids with special needs or disabilities. While giving this type of funding to these families seems like a great idea up front, Coopman said this bill is just like the charter schools. Once Pandora's box is opened, it will open the door for the ESA's to be expanded and expanded until any family can get one of these accounts and the program continues to divert more and more funding from public education.
And while SB 412 died, Coopman said there is an absolute possibility it will be tacked on to the large budget bill, and will be passed anyways.
District 7 State Senator Brian Buchanan (R) is currently sponsoring House Bill 1005, and he was the original author of SB 412. He voted to pass SB 413 out of the Senate. Five of the schools who attended Monday's meeting are in his district: Tri-County, North White, Twin Lakes, Frontier and Delphi.
Sen. Buchanan sent the following statement Tuesday evening:
"The goal of House Bill 1005 is to help children in Indiana receive the very best education possible. I firmly believe a quality education can unlock many positive opportunities for our youth.
HB 1005 is focused on removing financial roadblocks and empowering more parents to take control of their child’s education. We are just starting to work on HB 1005 in the Indiana Senate, and over the next few weeks, we will be talking with key stakeholders and gathering public input in regard to the legislation. I have personally talked with numerous school board members, administrators, teachers and parents from all across Indiana regarding this legislation. We will continue these discussions and dialogue in the coming weeks – I have no doubt we can fully support our tremendous public schools and provide families with quality opportunities for school choice."
State Senator Ron Alting (R) did not support SB 413 on its senate floor vote.
When Governor Eric Holcomb first introduced his budget for they year, he allocated $370 million new monies for K-12 education. And while charter and voucher programs were still included in that, their funding was not expanded and it did not include ESA's at all.
The current House budget bill, which passed out of the House on February 22nd, includes $144 million to expand publicly-funded private school programs. The vote to pass the budget largely fell along party lines. State Rep. Don Lehe (R) voted in favor of the budget. State Reps. Chris Campbell and Sheila Klinker (D) voted against it. State Rep. Sharron Negele (R) was excused from the vote.
The bills are proposed as promoting school choice, but this group of educators say public schools should always be the choice for our legislators.
"47% of children selecting another school chose a public school," said Coopman. "How does that demonstrate the need to promote vouchers and charters? The data is right there. There is no need to do that."
The state budget bill was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Feb. 24th and is waiting to be read. House Bill 1005 passed the House on Feb. 17th and has since been referred to the Senate committee on Education and Career Development. It hasn't been scheduled on that committee's agenda yet. Senate Bill 413 passed the Senate and was referred to the House on Feb. 24th. It has not yet been assigned to a committee.