In June, the governor and the four legislative caucus leaders agreed: schools should have certainty in their budgets, and school funding should not be cut because of COVID-19. Based on that assurance, Indiana school systems prepared for the 2020-2021 school year.
Since then, the Republican administration in Washington, D.C. threatened to cut any school funding for schools that do not re-open for physical instruction.
Last week, Republican State Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray issued a letter addressed to school leaders, informing them that if they do not open for at least some in-person classes, they stand to have their funding cut by 15 percent. Senator Bray’s letter was a surprising unilateral directive that contradicted the governor and threatened schools with budget cuts if they do not open in the traditional manner.
As a matter of background, the legislature determined some years ago that virtual charter schools, who had no brick-and-mortar facilities, should not be eligible for the same funding as a regular public school, but would only receive 85% of the per-pupil amount. This law was never meant to apply to regular public schools; the fact that a school closed for COVID-19 might now fit into that definition of “virtual school” is certainly an unanticipated and unintended result.
The June agreement between legislative leaders recognized this issue, and promised that schools would receive full funding no matter how they adjusted for instruction during the pandemic. The agreement also allowed for any needed policy changes to be made when the legislature returns to session.
I am glad to see the governor and Republican legislative leaders have partially confirmed their original position. However, they now want to postpone the student headcount that determines the actual dollars schools receive. This may help, but it also may not. It totally depends on what the COVID-19 case numbers look like in four months. This only pushes back the question. It does not give schools any definite answers for how to fund or plan the remainder of the school year.
We cannot let our children be collateral damage in a political fight.
This is a tough situation, and it is going to take some creative solutions to get us through it. Indiana schools need clear and consistence guidance from leadership to help schools open safely.
At my last count, at least 30 school systems have decided to go all virtual for at least some amount of time this school year.
To help ease the burden this puts on working families, YMCAs and other groups are trying to get permission to do e-learning for little ones whose parents have to work. That is commendable.
But it doesn’t make sense to close the schools just to crowd all the little kids somewhere else while our publicly-owned school buildings sit empty. Families who can afford to have a parent stay home with the children may be protected. But most working families are hung out to dry. Working parents need a safe place for their young children – this should include education.
School leaders need the help and resources from the state so they can use their imaginations and work outside the box to figure out how to get our kids back in school safely. Even if they have to move kindergarten to the high school gymnasium or hire more teachers to make class sizes smaller, then we need to make more money available to them, not less.
Our youngest children and special needs kids are the most vulnerable to the consequences of school closure. They are the least likely to be able to do a true e-learning regimen. They are also the ones most in need of daycare if the parents have to work.
We can take care of these children if we use some of the school buildings normally used by our older students. We can hire more teachers, cut class size and spread them apart and teach. The older children are more adaptable to a hybrid or even full virtual model – opening up more space for younger students to have access to socially distanced learning. If this is what it takes, then we need to make more money available for education, not less.
The governor needs to stop the fighting within his own party and stand by his promise to fully fund all schools. With proper funding, and no fear of surprise reductions in the future, our school leaders will be confident they can move forward with the resources needed to get our kids back to school as safely and quickly as possible.
Indiana needs a plan! Our governor is responsible for providing the guidance and resources for this plan! We cannot keep kicking the can down the road 30 days at a time. Parents across the state must demand that our government remains accountable for our children’s education and not leave a year’s worth of school as collateral damage.