The Herald Bulletin

July 22, 2013

‘Back to school’ means new legislative mandates for local schools

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS —

Figuring out ways to cut down on gang violence may seem like work for the police, but this coming school year, teachers, students and administrators throughout in Indiana will be enlisted in the effort. 

A new law requiring every school district develop policies and practices to deal with teenage gangs is among at least a dozen new education-related laws with long-term impact that went into effect earlier this month. 

Those new laws range from changes in the school funding formula to temporary relief for some schools from the impact of the property tax caps. But also on the list are laws that require schools to implement tougher anti-bullying policies, do more to crack down on chronic absenteeism, and boost efforts to get more parents involved with their children’s education.

“Over the years, schools have taken on so many issues besides reading, writing, and arithematic, that it’s become an ongoing expectation,” said Dennis Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. “If something is going on in society, it’s going to be dealt with by the schools.” 

Schools will have plenty to deal with in coming months, according to a new report by Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, known as CEEP. The center identified the most impactful school-related legislation of the past session, with help from a diverse group of education leaders, including Costerison. 

On the list is the biennial budget, which increased K-12 school funding overall by 2 percent in fiscal year 2014 and 1 percent in fiscal year 2015, for a total of about $6.7 billion. But about 40 percent of local school districts won’t see any increase in funding over the next two years and some will see a decline. 

That’s because the state’s school funding formula, adopted two years ago, eliminates the past supports for small school districts or districts with declining enrollments. The funding changes, being phased in over several years, are causing some schools to cut programs and personnel as they adjust to the new funding reality. 

“For schools, the (state) budget bill is always first and foremost importance,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of CEEP. 

The importance seemed elevated this year, as the Legislature moved to expand school vouchers for low-income families who want to send their children to private schools, using state support. Among other things, the new law waives the requirement that income-eligible students living in failing schools districts attend a public school for one year before applying for a voucher, and it makes it easier for children with special needs and for the siblings of students already in the voucher program to get a voucher. 

Paul DiPerna, of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, hails the expanded voucher program and predicts it will lead to the improvement of public schools that will compete for those students. 

But Todd Bess, head of the Indiana Association of School Principals, sees “far-reaching implications” in how the program was expanded, by easing eligibility to cover more students without capping the final numbers. And Frank Bush, of the Indiana School Boards Association, also fears the expanded voucher program will cut into public school funding: “This is particularly troubling in a time when even more is expected of public school services.” 

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.