Indiana alters student count to maintain school funding
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana State Board of Education approved a method to maintain funding for schools reopening virtually this fall after warnings of possible cuts from lawmakers last month.
The board unanimously approved the plan Wednesday, allowing the state to use data from the last student count in February to determine whether schools should receive full funding for their students, regardless of whether those students are receiving instruction virtually or in the classroom this semester.
The board’s resolution differs from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s initial request to preserve current school funding, however.
Last month, the governor proposed delaying the student count altogether after school leaders expressed concern about a letter from Indiana’s Senate president, Republican Rod Bray, that alluded to possible budget cuts for schools not offering an in-person option for students, despite the ongoing coronavirus threat.
Bray emphasized that state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85% of basic tuition support. That would mean school districts that only offered online instruction to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 could lose 15% of their basic per-student funding, which would be $855 per student.
Although Holcomb and other state leaders promised in June that schools would remain fully funded during the pandemic regardless of whether students are attending class in-person or online, Bray’s notice put millions of dollars in school funding on the line, given that dozens of school districts around the state decided to start the school year entirely online.
Under the board of education’s new plan, the fall student count day will happen as planned on Sept 18, but school budgets won’t be penalized for offering instruction only online.
Students will not be counted as “virtual” — meaning schools won’t see the 15% reduction in basic per student funding — as long as they were not enrolled in a full-time virtual education program on the previous enrollment count day. Students who attended school virtually in February and remain virtual students now will continue to be funded at the 85% level.
State school superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a news release that she was “pleased” the state’s board of education took action, noting that the original guidance from the Indiana Department of Education called for “100 percent funding” for affected students who are receiving virtual instruction because of the pandemic.
During his weekly news conference Wednesday, Holcomb praised the resolution for “getting this issue resolved ... so schools can have the funding that is needed to educate students during these unprecedented times.”
But the amendment to the student count is only a temporary commitment to retain school funding.
“We do have to remember that this solution isn’t a permanent one,” said Terry Spradlin, Executive Director of the Indiana School Boards Association. “But for now, it’s suitable to help us navigate through the winter until February.”
The board’s fix will last until the next student count day in February 2021, Spradlin said. State legislators will still have to decide during their next session whether they’ll change the current law surrounding virtual student funding or whether they’ll provide another solution to ensure full-funding for schools until the end of the academic year.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.