Indiana schools opting for online-only classes lose certainty on state funding

Education

INDIANAPOLIS– Indiana schools may lose funding if they don’t provide an in-person option this semester.

Back in June, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb told schools they would be spared the knife and get funded 100 percent.

That’s up in the air now, for some districts.

Senate President Pro Tempore State Sen. Rodric Bray (R) sent a letter to schools Thursday explaining why.

Dear School Leaders,
As schools across Indiana make preparations for and begin to return to school, I want to express my appreciation for the effort our schools have made to get back to the business of educating our children. The last few months have been incredibly challenging. I am also aware the next several weeks may be equally as challenging as we observe how effective the precautions and protocols put in place are in helping slow the advance of COVID-19 in Indiana’s schools. The uncertainty can produce anxiety in administrators, teachers and the students and their families. With some public schools looking to adjust their reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year, there have been many questions as to the level of funding. I want to make sure that school leaders understand the current state law for school funding as it pertains to virtual instruction, and how their school’s FY 2021 funding may be impacted by their reopening decisions. Current state law stipulates that schools will receive 85% of the normal foundation funding for any student who receives at least half of his or her instruction virtually. Changing this policy would require legislation to be passed by the General Assembly in our next session.
State leaders have said we favor fully funding students whose families choose virtual instruction this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I believe there is a strong appetite for making that change. However, there is no guarantee such an exception will be made for schools that don’t give families the option of in-person instruction in a school building. Therefore, schools that don’t offer in person instruction should plan on operating under the current funding policy. I know it is difficult to operate with uncertainty. My hope is this letter may provide a bit more clarity as schools begin to open across Indiana.

State Sen. Rodric Bray, Senate President Pro Tempore

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb told Indiana schools they could decide what’s best for them during this pandemic without funding cuts. Schools thought that meant the option of in person, a hybrid, or online only.

Sen. Bray is now saying that virtual only option wasn’t part of the deal. He sent a statement in response to his letter to schools.

“In June, as the number of COVID-19 cases was declining and Indiana continued to reopen, no one I spoke to was contemplating the idea that school districts would not offer any in-person instruction at all for the upcoming school year. In the past week, a number of internal conversations made it clear that it had become conventional wisdom among schools that they would receive full funding for virtual students even if remote learning was their only method of instruction for the school year. Since this was not something my leadership team or I had considered, I felt it was necessary to clarify that agreement, because the underlying existing law says students receiving at least half of instruction virtually will only be funded at 85% of the foundation amount. We can all agree that we should support our students, teachers, schools and families, but it is important to keep in mind that the funding law predates COVID-19 and that all of the funding issues we are discussing now will ultimately require legislative action. My letter was neither intended as a change in position, nor as a threat to schools who are choosing not to reopen to in-person instruction, but as a clarification of previous comments. Schools are making significant reopening decisions, and I feel the clarification I provided in my letter is important for school leaders to know so they can make fully informed decisions that will work best for their districts. I believe it is better to communicate this now rather than to wait until the next time the legislature is in session after schools have already been operating under the reopening decisions they make for the fall. I am happy to continue the conversation about how those schools that do not offer an in-person option for students are funded.”

State Sen. Rodric Bray, Senate President Pro Tempore

The Indiana State Teachers Association believes not fully funding schools who choose to go completely online for safety reasons is wrong.

“Unfortunately, we do believe that school districts will have to balance the fiscal health of their school district with the physical health of their students, their educators and the greater community at large,” said Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill. “And that simply is not what should be happening.”

Many state education associations, democrats, lawmakers, school leaders as well as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jennifer McCormick have released statements against Sen. Bray’s letter.

McCormick called for a special session to address this issue saying quote, “We must do better for our children and families.”

“I’m shocked that folks are already back tracking on this,” said House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta.

He said he had no idea this was coming and demands reassurance from the governor. GiaQuinta has already been flooded with response from superintendents in the area he represents.

“If funding is going to be reduced, this superintendent told me, ‘I have no choice but to layoff 20 teachers’,” said GiaQuinta.

ISTA said school districts are not making money by going full virtual. Most teachers still teach online from their classrooms so they still have the cost of utilities, grounds and custodial staff.

“And keep in mind many of our districts are still trying to run some form of a meal service and some districts because school buses are equipped with a WiFi hot spot, we have some bus drivers taking their busses out into neighborhoods where there is low connectivity,” explained Gambill.

The 85 percent funding law was created for traditional virtual schools. Gambill said lumping public schools in that category right now would be unfair.

“Our schools would be in session face to face if it weren’t for the pandemic,” said Gambill.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued this statement:

“As I’ve said before, I am committed to providing 100 percent funding to schools as they navigate the unprecedented challenges of opening the academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools are returning with classroom instruction thanks to the herculean efforts of our public health officials, educators, students, parents, and communities. They all need our support now more than ever.”

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