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Budget plan boosts K-12 funding, adds charter school money

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – A deal on a new state budget slows down proposed funding cuts to some shrinking schools districts while providing a portion of the additional money that Republican Gov. Mike Pence sought for charter schools, legislative leaders said Tuesday.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said the agreement reached with the Senate would keep overall school funding increases of 2.3 percent, or about $460 million, over the next two years. It would also phase in over three years a shift of money from many shrinking urban and rural school districts to those in growing suburban communities. A previous plan called for immediate cuts to more than a third of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts in order to even out the spending, a move Democrats called devastating.

“We make significant progress on the gap between the highest and lowest spending schools, but we give a softer landing to some of the urban schools that felt that they were suffering too much of a loss,” Bosma said.

Lawmakers are to vote on approving the budget plan Wednesday, which is the Republican-dominated General Assembly’s adjournment deadline.

Other issues that remained unsettled Tuesday included whether the Legislature would change course on the Republican-led push to allow the State Board of Education to replace Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz as its leader.

The budget deal also gives about $10 million a year in additional charter school grants of about $500 a student, Bosma said. That’s about a quarter of the $40 million a year that Pence had requested.

Pence’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment on the budget talks.

School funding changes proposed by the House shifted tens of millions of dollars to growing suburban districts in an attempt to shrink the gap in per-child funding between growing and shrinking school districts that has reached nearly $3,000. Suburban districts have said their funding hasn’t kept pace with enrollment growth.

A previous Senate spending plan called for phasing in the cuts over five years.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said Tuesday that the three-year phase-in would drop the funding gap range to about $2,000.

Meanwhile, an agreement had yet to be reached over a bill that would affect what control the Ritz-led Department of Education or the state Board of Education would have over state school policy. All members of the board besides Ritz are appointed by the governor.

Since the session’s January start, Pence and GOP leaders have pushed for allowing the board to select any of its members as chairman, a move that likely would oust Ritz as the leader and end a decades-old law that makes the elected state superintendent the board’s leader.

A Senate proposal released Monday would push back the change until 2017, which is after Ritz’s current term ends. But it also would give the board additional authority over the ISTEP standardized test and school data.

Pence and other Republicans have said the chairmanship change is needed to address ongoing disputes between Ritz and the other board members, but Democrats and Ritz supporters have argued the move would undermine the will of voters, who elected her in 2012.

Bosma said delaying the chairmanship change wasn’t his first choice, but he signaled that House Republicans might go along with it.

“It may be a shock to people, but we actually listen when people say things, when constituents express opinions, when teachers express opinions,” Bosma said. ” … It was never anyone’s intent here to do a, quote, ‘power grab’ or to strip somebody of authority. It was always about making the board functional.”