It would seem to be a simple question with only one right answer.
Will the State of Indiana fully fund all public K-12 education this school year, regardless of whether schools are using in-person instruction, virtual learning or a hybrid of the two during the pandemic?
Gov. Eric Holcomb seemed to have the right answer in June when he and the State Legislature’s budget writers said they would support full funding for all public schools regardless.
But then two weeks ago, state Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray sent school districts a notification that those not offering in-person classes would likely receive only 85% of their basic per-pupil funding.
After educators howled, Holcomb announced last week that he had a solution: delay the fall count of student enrollment, which dictates district funding based on how many students are attending class in-person and how many are learning virtually, until at least December.
The state board of education will conduct a special meeting this week to set a new student count day.
According to Indiana law, schools receive only 85% of per-pupil funding for students taking less than half of their instruction in-person. That amounts to a reduction of about $850 for each “virtual student.”
If Holcomb is hoping that all schools are in-person by the time January arrives, he’s likely to be disappointed. Projections suggest the coronavirus will continue to be a persistent danger for months.
More likely, the governor is looking ahead to January for another reason. Changing or creating an exception to the state law would take an act of the Legislature, and the next session of the General Assembly is scheduled to convene in January.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick has called for a special session of the General Assembly to address school funding more quickly. But the logistics of 150 state legislators meeting anytime soon to conduct business as COVID-19 cases spike in Indiana are problematic. School administrators know all too well the complexity of such logistics.
Republicans hold a supermajority at the statehouse, so the power to revise the law and assure 100% funding for schools rests in their hands. Holcomb is a Republican, too. He’s positioned to build a consensus among the party’s lawmakers to support full funding for the state’s public schools.
As long as the threat of reduced funding lingers, some schools will be forced to choose between keeping students and staff safe and losing a large slice of resources, or sending them back into the classroom despite the danger of a coronavirus spike.
If Republicans aren’t willing to voice full-throated support for public schools, voters will have a chance to send them a message in November.