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Republicans nix separate charter school, voucher funding

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Republicans have rejected Democrats’ calls to specify in Indiana’s state budget how much money is going toward traditional public schools, charter schools and the private school voucher program.

Democratic lawmakers say it is a question of transparency at a time when Republican Gov. Mike Pence is proposing increases in state funding for charter schools and vouchers that his administration estimates could reach nearly $50 million over the next two years.

Democratic Rep. Terry Goodin of Austin said lumping all money for school programs together leaves the public unable to easily know how the state money is being spent.

“Where is that money going?” Goodin said. “Is that money going to the charter schools? Is that money going to the private schools? Is all that money going to the public schools? People are confused at home.”

Pence’s spending plan submitted to the Republican-controlled Legislature on Thursday would boost school funding by 2 percent in the budget’s first year and by 1 percent in the second year, for a total increase of about $200 million.

It would give $1,500 more per student for charter schools at an estimated cost of $41 million over the two years. It also raises the school voucher program’s limit on per-student funding, which the Pence administration projects will cost $4 million annually.

Chris Atkins, Pence’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration wasn’t considering itemizing the school funding expenditures. He said the current funding process “supports all three different avenues to get kids and families better quality options.”

Democrats maintain that Republicans are blindly committing the state to more spending on vouchers and charter schools without having a good idea of how much it will cost.

Participation in the private school voucher program has grown from about 3,900 students when it started four years ago to an estimated nearly 30,000 this school year. The program’s cost to the state has jumped from about $16 million in its first year to some $80 million for the 2013-14 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

Some 35,000 students were enrolled last year in charter schools, which House Democrats say received $229 million in state money. A little more than 1 million students were enrolled in Indiana’s public schools last year, with K-12 spending making up nearly half of the current year’s $15 billion state budget.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said making separate budget lines for the school programs had been considered, but that he was against the idea.

“My thought was for those who don’t like charter schools or don’t like voucher programs, it’s easier to cut something that’s separated,” he said. “I’m a fan of both programs, along with the traditional public schools, so I think keeping them unified is the best measure right now.”