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Indiana schools say underfunded textbook program threatens finances

(WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — School leaders said they might need to cut programs or staff if state lawmakers don’t provide more textbook funding in the next budget.

Indiana this spring became one of the last few states to eliminate fees for textbooks and other curricular materials when lawmakers set aside $160 million in each of the next two budget years, which runs until June 30, 2025, and prohibited public schools from charging textbook fees. Dr. Jeff Butts, the superintendent of Wayne Township schools, said this move forced school districts like his to reshuffle their own budgets at the last minute.

“One of the challenges we’ve had is trying to figure out what this bill covers and what it will pay for, what it won’t pay for,” he said.

Butts said the sum lawmakers set aside amounts to about $151 per student, on average. He said that’s usually enough to cover curricular materials for elementary school students, but not for high school students, particularly those taking advanced classes. The rest of the money will have to come out of school corporations’ own pockets. Butts said that means his district might need to redirect money away from other uses such as teacher pay.

Butts said many of the curricular materials expenses schools face come from the growing use of technology in classrooms. Students in Wayne Township are issued a Chromebook or an iPad, and access required texts and supplemental materials electronically. Teachers are issued their own devices with a different suite of software for their needs. Both the devices themselves and the software programs they need cost money. Apple’s website lists a 9th-generation iPad at $309 with an educational discount, twice the amount the state funding would cover and the least expensive tablet device listed.

“When we look at curricular materials, we’re not just talking about textbooks, we’re not just talking about workbooks, we’re also talking about all of the software programs, all of the digital resources we have in each adoption year,” he said.

Indiana School Boards Association Executive Director Terry Spradlin said school corporations have told him so far, they estimate the new textbook fee law could cost them anywhere from a few tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands. MSD Wayne officials said they could lose more than $1 million. Spradlin said school officials won’t have a final dollar figure until they submit their reimbursement requests to the Indiana Department of Education in October. Depending on the size of their budget shortfalls, he said school officials might need to take actions ranging from prohibiting taking school-issued laptops home to cutting teacher pay or benefits.

“All of these things are interconnected because they are all funded through the education fund, so any shortfall in funding will have ramifications for the other things that we pay for,” he said.

Spradlin said school corporations have several ways to make up the difference. He said they can utilize existing funds in their education fund or emergency funds. In extreme cases, they could turn to ballot referenda to cover the costs. Butts said he doesn’t expect to make any significant cuts for now. If lawmakers don’t provide more curricular materials funding in future budgets, he said that might change.

Indiana has a two-year budget, so state lawmakers won’t work on school spending again until the spring of 2025.