2023 Legislative Update – The Sucker Punch
2023 Legislative Update
We’re well into the 2023 legislative session, and some of us are asking:
- Do our legislators understand that public schools* are essential infrastructure in communities across Indiana—rural, urban, and suburban?
- If so, why do they keep moving bills that would defund public schools?
- Why do they want to send more public funds to private and privately managed environments, with little or no public oversight?
- Who is the supermajority working for?
Damaging bills this session fall into two broad categories. The first has to do with money. Adequate funding is necessary to maintain a vibrant and well-resourced school system, so attacks on school funding are also attacks on the quality of our public schools.
Here are bills that attack or divert public school funding
1. HB 1001: Budget bill
Let’s reward private and charter schools and punish public schools that are leveraging property taxes to provide important programs to students. Let’s hand out money to the wealthy to offset their private school costs.
This budget would bring about unprecedented state control of school funding. It designates the amount public schools would receive per student through local property taxes (to a lower amount than many currently receive), and opens up a new stream of grant funding for operations for charter schools. Urban and suburban school districts with large tax bases would see their per-student operations funding decline substantially, while rural schools would receive an increase. (See the WFYI analysis from Eric Weddle.) An example of a district that would lose: the Monroe County Community School Corporation projects it will receive $25.5 million in its operations levy in 2023, which works out to about $2,400 per student. Under the budget bill, were MCCSC to receive the target amount of $1,400 per student, it would cut our operations funds by 40%
Spending on the private school voucher program, which serves only 7% of Indiana’s students, would more than double, to $500 million in 2024 and $600 million in 2025. It would account for a third of the total increase in funding, per reporting from WFYI’s Eric Weddle and the Indiana Capital Chronicle. The bill would increase the income eligibility for vouchers to about $220,000 for a family of four. Another hefty portion of the increase would go to charter schools, though charters serve only 4.6% of Indiana’s approximately 1 million public school students (charters + traditional public schools; it is even less if you factor in private school and home school students).
Why you should be concerned: In a time of high inflation, this bill transfers roughly a third of the increase in education funding to privately managed schools that are not available to all students, do not have a mandate to serve all students, and who are permitted to actively discriminate. Also, the budget bill would significantly reduce the capital projects/transportation funds available to some districts that serve large numbers of students. Increases for rural schools are good but should not be achieved by cutting funds dramatically for urban schools. Equal subjection of all public schools to state-dictated austerity is bad for Indiana.
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Horrific
What to do: Email your state representative, and if the house passes the bill (at which point it would flip to the senate), write to or call Senator Mishler, Chairman of the appropriations committee, at Senator.Mishler@iga.in.gov, 800-382-9467. (Actually, write to everyone on the Senate Appropriations Committee…their emails are listed below.)
2. SB 391: Closure of school buildings
Is a district looking weak, losing students? No time to lose…call in the vultures.
This bill builds on the existing law that says public school districts should make their unused buildings available to charters for $1. It would compel districts to make their underused school buildings available to charter schools and authorizers.
Beginning in FY 2024, this bill provides that certain school corporations that have been losing enrollment are required to submit an annual report to DOE that includes a list of school buildings that qualify for closure. The bill also allows charter schools, state educational institutions (public colleges, universities and Ivy Tech), and DOE to inquire at any time whether a school building meets the criteria to qualify for closure. Within 15 days of receiving notice that a school building is subject for closure, DOE will post on its website and will inform charter schools and state educational institutions (public colleges, universities and Ivy Tech) relevant information concerning the status of the school building.
If 60% of a school’s space is not dedicated to classroom instruction, that school could be offered up. Buildings used for storage must dedicate at least 50% of space to that. And if a school corporation is found to have willfully ignored or violated the proposed new law, it could face a civil penalty of 3% of its state education aid.
This bill provides that beginning in FY 2024, DOE will withhold tuition support payments made to school corporations noncompliant with this bill’s requirements by 3% for 12 months.
Why you should be concerned: If a school is closing because of loss of enrollment, why would we want to open a charter in the same location? A new school would leach more students from the school corporation, perpetuating a vicious cycle. And, because charters appoint their own boards and are not required to hold their board meetings in the community where the charter school is located, the building and the school in it would no longer answer to the community as a whole.
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Predatory
What to do: This bill will receive a vote on Feb. 22 in the Senate. Contact your state senator IMMEDIATELY.
3) SB 305: Indiana education scholarship account (ESA) program
What if, instead of funding school districts with qualified teachers, state curriculum standards, and community oversight, we just hand parents a debit card and see what they can purchase on the open market?
The bill expands eligibility for the ESA program beyond students with disabilities to most K-12 students, increases the grant amount awarded to ESA program participants to 100% of the per-child tuition support, and expands the list of qualified expenses that can be paid with the ESA grant to include computer hardware. ESAs are overseen by the state treasurer, not the Department of Education. Expenses for 2023 have been capped at $10 million, but they don’t know how much the cost would be next year.
Why you should be concerned: There is no requirement to provide the student receiving an ESA a full curriculum. ESAs can be used in environments that have no obligation to provide a free appropriate public education. ESAs siphon funding away from public schools and into privately managed environments that lack oversight, where families have fewer or no rights. They are also ripe for fraud and abuse. Read Peter Greene in Forbes on six big problems with ESAs. ESAs have also been used in Ohio to fund teaching of Nazism.
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Dangerous to democracy
What to do: We expect the provisions of this bill to get rolled into the budget even if the bill “dies.” Email members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee (addresses are at the end of this post).
4) SB 398: School property taxes
Let’s double down on taxation without representation! We can use children as money mules to carry property tax dollars out of the school district where the child lives into areas where those paying property taxes don’t have a vote or a voice.
This bill would dictate that property taxes follow the child in the same way that per-child tuition support funds do, to another public school district or to a charter school.
Why you should be concerned: State funding for so-called “school choice” has weakened some school districts (witness both high-poverty urban districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools—which has lost thousands of students (37%) to charter schools and has entered painful rounds of school closure—and many small rural school districts). Broadening the backpack of cash to include property taxes will destabilize districts. Property taxes cover capital and transportation costs for districts. It is also offensive on the face of it. Those paying the property taxes will have no ability to elect those who oversee the schools that their property taxes will be supporting. Charters have high rates of closure, so the investment is not in stable infrastructure, but in a risky venture. Also, charters appoint their own boards, so no taxpayers get to elect them, not even the taxpayers in the district next door. And charters can contract with for-profit management companies, meaning that your local property taxes could be enriching an out-of-state corporation (and highly paid CEOs) on the backs of local students. Districts will not be able to budget responsibly for capital investments because their funding will depend on the decisions of others (for instance, if a neighboring district starts a new IB program, or if a charter gets authorized by some distant entity to open up nearby).
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Truly awful
What to do: Contact members of the Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee and Chairman Travis Holdman (their emails are listed below) as well as Linda Rogers, the bill’s author, at Senator.Rogers@iga.in.gov or 800-382-9467.
5) SB 224: Various election matters
Let’s make referendums harder to pass.
Among its provisions, not all of which are bad, this bill requires districts to run referendums during the general election (November of even years), starting in January 2024. It also makes changes to the existing required language (the existing language is misleading) for the ballot question.
Why you should be concerned: Indiana’s inadequate overall school funding since cuts in 2009, combined with property tax caps, combined with the diversion of money to charter schools and private voucher schools, has hit public schools hard, resulting in programs being cut, stagnant salaries, and a teacher shortage. Running a referendum is the one mechanism that districts and local taxpayers have to maintain staff and programs.
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: The component of the bill that would require referendums to be run during the general election is quite bad.
What to do: Email your state senator and representative to ask that they remove the requirement to use the general election when placing a referendum question on the ballot. Districts should be free to determine whether the best time is in the primary or the general election. We should be supporting, not attacking, districts’ ability to raise money to strengthen and maintain school programs.
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Another category of bills attacks the breadth and quality of public school programs by attempting to intimidate teachers and restrict what can be taught or provided to students.
Here are bills that attack school climate and curriculum
1) SB 12: Material harmful to minors
Let’s give the most fearful parents the power to restrict access to reading materials for all students in a school or district. The threat of jail time will lead districts and school librarians to self-censor. Genius! Maybe no one will even want to serve as a school librarian at all. Maybe schools won’t want to risk having books on the shelves.
This bill would require public schools and public libraries to publish on the website, and make available in hard copy, a list of every book available in the school library. If material is deemed to be harmful to minors, it would subject school librarians to prosecution for a Level 6 felony. This bill does NOT apply to private school libraries.
Why you should be concerned: This bill attempts to bring the culture wars to your school, to waste librarians’ and administrators’ time, and to subject all children’s reading to the narrowest definitions of what even one local parent or guardian deems appropriate. This is a variation on the Florida bill that has resulted in school’s impounding their own libraries and emptying bookshelves. It could also make sex ed more complicated and risky to teach.
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Putrid. Also, have legislators heard of the internet where far worse material is readily available to everyone regardless of age? Public schools already have processes in place to allow parents to challenge a book or instruction materials as being inappropriate or not grade level appropriate. These processes and policies are decided upon at the local level by locally elected and appointed school boards.
What to do: Contact your State Senator ASAP. This bill will be heard on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Feb. 21, and will be voted on Thursday, Feb. 23.
2) HB 1608: Sexual orientation and gender identity instruction
If we ignore the existence of LGBTQ people, it means our children are less likely to see them. Let’s not allow students to express an identity separate from what their parents might want from them.
This bill was initially written to ban instruction about gender in K-3 classrooms, including gender fluidity, roles, stereotypes, identity, and expression, as well as sexual orientation. It was amended Feb. 20 and changed shape considerably. Now it bans instruction on human sexuality (sex ed) in grades K-3. It also requires that school staff only use a name or pronoun that differs from a child’s biological sex with written consent from the parents. It requires the school to notify parents if the child requests a change. It says that a school may not discipline a staff member for using a name or pronoun consistent with the child’s legal name or biological sex.
Why you should be concerned: This bill would require schools to “tell” on transgender children. Many students are supported by their families, but not all are. It shifts the school’s obligation from supporting students to meeting the expectations of the student’s parents.
The language banning instruction on human sexuality is broad and vague. Would it mean that a gay teacher would be restricted from sharing a description or photos of her family? That books in the classroom would be expected to only depict heteronormative families? For students who have two dads or two moms, would the teacher not be able to take steps to help them feel their family structure was affirmed and recognized?
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Unconscionable
What to do: Contact your state representative ASAP. It has advanced to the full House, but if they don’t pass it by Feb. 27 it will die.
3) HB 1635: Various education matters
Let’s encourage high school kids to make a decision to join the military and force them to follow through on it.
Among other matters, this bill establishes a new armed services gradation pathway and would require students who elect to follow it to enlist in the military—impressment.
Why you should be concerned: Should military enlistment be a goal of schooling, separate from other graduation pathways? Should the long arm of the state be able to force 18-year-olds to follow through on joining the military after they have completed the new pathway requirements? This is state overreach in the extreme.
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Manipulative
What to do: Contact Senate Education & Career Development Committee (their emails are listed below).
4) SB 486: Education Matters
Let’s make the teacher shortage even worse.
SB 486 would deprive teachers of their right to discuss, through their union, their working conditions—children’s learning conditions—with administrators.
Why you should be concerned: At current count, there are over 2,600 positions open in Indiana’s public schools. 1,400 of those openings are teaching positions. Instead of addressing this shortage, legislators are trying to pass bills making it more difficult to teach. At the end of the day, who will teach our community’s children? This bill has already passed the Senate
Where this is on the scale of bad to truly awful: Bad Bad Bad
What to do: Contact all Senators. This bill could come for a vote before the full Senate as early as February 23rd.
The variety, volume, and sheer virulence of anti-public school bills this year is stunning. Legislators will still tell their constituents that they support and value public schools. But language is cheap. Bills that aim to intimidate teachers demean them and erode the quality of public education. A budget is where you see actual priorities, and Indiana’s supermajority in the House is choosing to prioritize private and privatized schools, even though about 9 in 10 students in Indiana attend public schools.
More Actions Steps:
- Ask who are they working for? Campaign finance reports may give the clearest picture. Linda Rogers is the State Chairperson for ALEC, and we should ask ourselves – who is she working for? Her constituents in Indiana? Or for out-of-state well funded people who want to eliminate public schools?
- Host some “letter writing” events – whether that’s in person or virtual.
- Inform people how to determine what the losses will be for their district. You can start by using this tool to find out what your district could have had if the voucher program not been in place.
- Share this information far and wide – with family, friends, neighbors, anyone who may care at all if we will still have public schools.
- Business contacts need to be much better educated about the devastating effects these policies will have on their future workforce – or more accurately, the lack of a competent workforce as well as the destruction of countless local communities.
Make your voice heard. Insist that your state senators and representatives support public schools.
Jenny Robinson and Keri Miksza
*Public school districts comprise the “system of common schools” required by the Indiana constitution and by statute to serve all students. School districts cannot turn away children who live within their boundaries based on race, religion, family composition, special education status, or educational performance. They answer to their communities through elected boards. These schools are truly public—open to all, required to serve all, and subject to democratic oversight through elected boards.
HOW TO CONTACT
Senate Appropriations Committee emails:
Senator.Lanane@iga.in.gov; Senator.Melton@iga.in.gov; Senator.Niezgodski@iga.in.gov; Senator.Qaddoura@iga.in.gov; Senator.Bassler@iga.in.gov; Senator.Boots@iga.in.gov; Senator.Brown@iga.in.gov; Senator.Charbonneau@iga.in.gov; Senator.Crider@iga.in.gov; Senator.Ford@iga.in.gov; Senator.Garten@iga.in.gov; Senator.Travis@iga.in.gov; Senator.Mishler@iga.in.gov
Senate Education & Career Development Committee emails:
Senator.Bassler@iga.in.gov; Senator.Buchanan@iga.in.gov; Senator.Crane@iga.in.gov; Senator.Dernulc@iga.in.gov; Senator.Donato@iga.in.gov; Senator firstname.lastname@example.org; Senator.Hunley@iga.in.gov; Senator.Johnson@iga.in.gov; Senator.Leising@iga.in.gov; Senator.Qaddoura@iga.in.gov; Senator.Raatz@iga.in.gov; Senator.Randolph@iga.in.gov; Senator.Rogers@iga.in.gov; Senator.Yoder@iga.in.gov
House Education Committee emails:
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(800) 382-9842 – House Democrats
(800) 382-9841 – House Republicans
(800) 382-9467 – State Senators