House panel considers Pence’s voucher expansion proposal

A push by Gov. Mike Pence and legislative Republicans to make it easier for students to qualify for Indiana’s private school vouchers is drawing stiff opposition from groups that prefer to pump more money into public schools.

The wide-ranging measure would allow current private-school students from households that earn up to about $64,000 for a family of four to qualify for Indiana’s two-year-old voucher program – and keep those vouchers even if their families’ income grows as high as $128,000. It would also offer their parents larger tax deductions.

The proposal was the subject of a five-hour hearing in the House Education Committee on Tuesday, and will get a vote in the panel’s Thursday meeting. It’s a top item on Pence’s first-year legislative agenda.

“The governor has consistently stated that there’s nothing that ails public education that cannot be cured by giving teachers more freedom to teach and parents more choices in the education of their children,” said Marilee Springer, Pence’s top policy adviser.

House Bill 1003, being carried by House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, would do away with Indiana’s requirement that students spend at least one year in public schools before they can qualify for private school vouchers.

It would expand eligibility so that students whose families earn up to three times the amount necessary to qualify for free or reduced lunch would qualify. And it would eliminate income restrictions entirely for foster children and those with special needs.

The measure would also increase from $1,000 to $3,000 the amount of education expenses such as textbooks that parents of home-schooled or private-schooled children could write off as tax deductions. To Democrats’ dismay, that deduction is not available for public school parents.

And it would launch a new dollar-for-dollar tax credit for Hoosiers who donate to organizations that hand out pre-kindergarten scholarships.

The overall bill would “directly subsidize private schools,” Suzanne Felli, an Indianapolis public school volunteer, told the committee Tuesday.

“This creates an even larger subsidy program which is for the benefit of private and religious schools,” said Joel Hand, the executive director of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. “All it does is expedite the drain of funding from public schools.”

He said the bill would move Indiana in a direction that would ultimately result in public schools being attended by “only those children whose parents cannot possibly find a way to send them to a private school or children whose parents simply don’t care about their kids.”

He and other parents and public-school advocates said the state should instead use the money for increases in K-12 public school funding – a $6.3 billion per year line item in Indiana’s budget, but that Pence proposed only $63 million in increases for next year.

Parents and private-school leaders lined up to support Behning’s bill, as well. They said since Indiana schools are currently funded on a per-pupil basis, spending money on private schools wouldn’t actually cut funding for public education.

Kevin Abbott, a South Bend father of five children, said he and his wife have spent about 20 percent of their take-home pay on private school tuition.

He said he has three children currently attending a private Christian school in Mishawaka, and that eliminating the requirement that they attend public school for a year in order to qualify for a voucher would ease his family’s burden.

“It’s probably not a good choice for our kids to remove them from school, put them in another school and bring them back again,” he said. “Financial matters are important to us, but not as important as our children’s education.”

Even if the voucher expansion measure clears the Indiana House, it could see changes once it crosses the Statehouse hallway.

Senate Education and Career Development Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse said Tuesday that he’ll give the bill a hearing and a vote – but that he considers it a “pretty broad” expansion of a voucher program he thinks it’s too early to change drastically.

He’d originally planned to give a vote on a Senate bill that would allow siblings of students already using the voucher program to qualify without spending a year in public schools, and that he could look for a final bill that splits the difference between that and the House proposal.

“There might be some middle ground in between there,” said Kruse, R-Auburn.

He said eliminating the requirement that students first spend one year in public schools “gives me some pause” because lawmakers envisioned the voucher program as one for students who knew from experience that public schools weren’t for them.

“There’s some value in having that experience,” Kruse said. “I’d say that doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever – we may change it. But that was one of the premises when we passed it, that one year in public schools, and there was some justification for that.”

No bills to reduce Ritz’s power moving through Kruse’s committee, he says

Senate Education and Career Development Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, put the kibosh on the notion that any Senate bills coming out of his committee would reduce the strength of new Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz.

“We’re not going to hear any bills here in the Senate bills that reflect in any way against our new superintendent. She has been doing an excellent job so far and getting along with us very well, and I will continue to work with her the best I can,” Kruse said.

Ritz ousted Republican Tony Bennett in November’s election.

Cursive writing bill advances

A bill that would require Indiana schools to teach cursive writing won a Senate education committee’s approval on a 7-4 vote Wednesday.

The bill is authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg. At least two conservative Republican members of the committee said they weren’t sure how they’d vote when the bill moved to the Senate floor.

Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he voted no and that it was “not that I’m voting against cursive, but just the concept of the legislature determining the curriculum.”

Worth noting: The Senate Education and Career Development Committee does all its work on iPads.

Voucher expansion part of Pence’s agenda

Expanding Indiana’s voucher system and beginning to fund pre-kindergarten are the central planks of an education agenda being driven by Gov. Mike Pence and House leaders.

The two proposals would add to the sweeping set of changes that the Republican-dominated General Assembly initiated when they created private school vouchers for low-income Hoosier families in 2011.

One measure would do away with the requirement that students spend at least a year in public schools before they can receive tax dollars to attend private schools. It would make vouchers available regardless of income to children of military veterans, special needs students and foster children.

That bill would also give Hoosiers $1 back in tax credits for every $2 they donate to organizations that provide pre-kindergarten scholarships – a move that would mark the first time Indiana pumped state tax dollars into those programs.

The second measure would set aside $7 million per year for a two-year pre-kindergarten pilot program. That’s enough to foot tuition bills for about 1,000 children from low-income families, House Speaker Brian Bosma said..

Both are being carried by House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis. He said the bills tie Pence’s ideas in with goals that he and Bosma, another Indianapolis Republican, hope to achieve.

“All three of us are interested in the needs of students and believe that choice is one of the best ways to incentivize improvements in education,” Behning said.

Pence was mute about his legislative agenda on Thursday, suggesting that Hoosiers “stay tuned” for his State of the State address next week.

But Behning said the governor asked him to carry legislation that includes the pre-kindergarten tax credit and the voucher expansion to children of military veterans as well as foster and special needs children.

He said doing away with the required one year in public school to qualify for a voucher is an idea he and Bosma both support, and that the $7 million pre-kindergarten pilot program is broadly backed by House Republican leaders.

Bosma said Thursday he hopes the program – which would cover a small sliver of the 81,000 or so children who would meet the income requirements to participate – puts students “in a better position to be prepared when they reach kindergarten and first grade.”

The voucher expansion could be the most controversial of the education proposals. Behning originally did not include a one year in public school requirement in the bill he filed in 2011, but it was added to quell the concerns of Republican fiscal hawks and stiff Democratic opposition.

“You’re actually incentivizing parents to pull children out of a (private) school that they feel is meeting their students’ needs, put them in public school, and put them back,” Behning said of the current law.

The vouchers are worth $4,500 annually for elementary school students, and a little more than that for older students – 90 percent of the per-pupil funding that was going to the public school they had attended.

Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, introduced a bill that would allow the siblings of students who are receiving vouchers to qualify for those vouchers without also spending at least a year in a public school.

But that proposal drew the ire of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who said vouchers were aimed at students whose public schools weren’t meeting their needs.

“I think this is a pretty fundamental change, and I’m just wondering whether it’s one that really meets the intent of the original law – whether it would have passed if it was in this form to start with,” Kenley said.

Senate Education and Career Development Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said last week that he does not anticipate “a lot of changes made in the voucher law” during the General Assembly’s four-month 2013 session.

Instead, he said, any changes would come in “small increments.”

Bosma: Pence tax cut ‘may be difficult’

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said his chamber’s budget proposal is likely to spend more on K-12 education, higher education and transportation than the two-year, $29 billion spending plan offered by Gov. Mike Pence does.

As a result, Bosma said, Pence’s proposed individual income tax cut — a reduction in the state’s rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent — might not happen.

“It may be difficult to invest in all the critical needs we have before us and accept the governor’s tax cut proposal,” Bosma said Thursday.

He said the House’s budget will include $7 million a year for a two-year pilot pre-school program that would fund vouchers for about 1,000 low-income children. He said that budget will move closer to the Commission for Higher Education’s recommendations on higher education, and will treat K-12 education as the state’s top priority.

And, Bosma said, the House budget will include more transportation funding.

“That is where the tax cut difficulty comes,” he said. “If you’re going to make these investments, we have funds available to do it on an ongoing basis, and you have to weigh that against not only the sustainability but the effectiveness of a small income tax cut – a small income tax cut per person that has a big impact, of course, on the state budget.”

Pence proposes lean budget that includes tax cut

Gov. Mike Pence is asking state lawmakers to consider a lean budget that includes slight bumps in education spending and more than a half-billion dollars worth of individual income tax cuts.

Chris Atkins, Pence’s budget director, is unveiling the two-year, $29 billion spending plan that the new administration is proposing at a State Budget Committee meeting on Tuesday – Pence’s second day in office.

The document would set into motion a number of Pence’s goals, including the tax cut, efforts to improve the state’s vocational education programs and new financial incentives for schools to achieve high standardized test scores and graduation rates.

“Our budget is honestly balanced, funds our priorities, holds the line on spending, returns excess revenues to hard-working Hoosiers, and builds our reserves,” Pence said in his budget’s executive summary.

“This budget sends a strong message that Indiana’s public servants will use only those resources necessary to keep Indiana moving in the right direction – and not a penny more.”

His proposal increases public K-12 education spending by a total of $190 million. That starts with a boost of 1 percent, or $63 million each year.

In the second year, the spending plan includes another $64 million to divide among the state’s highest-performing schools. That money would be divvied up among schools that achieve As or Bs on the state’s A-through-F school rating system, graduate more than 90 percent of their students and have 90 percent of their third graders pass the I-READ3 exam.

The budget proposal also increases universities’ funding by 1 percent – far short of the 7 percent boost that the Commission for Higher Education had suggested – and sets aside $19 million for universities to repair and improve buildings.

In both cases, those funding increases would not keep up with the 10-year average of 2.5 percent annual inflation.

Overall, 65 percent of the state’s budget is dominated by K-12 education and higher education. Increased spending there and on Medicaid, as well as the tax cut, will eat through most of the state’s new revenues.

Pence’s budget projects that the state will collect $518 million more in taxes than it spends in the next fiscal year, and $759 million more than it spends the year after that.

Most of that would be used to chop Indiana’s individual income tax from 3.4 percent down to 3.06 percent – a central plank of Pence’s campaign. That would cost Indiana about $742 million in revenues over a two-year period.

After 12.5 percent of the state’s annual spending is set aside in reserves, what’s left would be divided evenly between former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ automatic income tax credits and a new state transportation and infrastructure fund.

Pence’s budget estimates that $347 million would be pumped into that infrastructure fund over the course of the two-year budget.

The most dramatic spending increases come in Medicaid. The health insurance program for the poor is receiving $1.65 billion from the state’s general fund this year, but is projected to need $2.1 billion by 2015 in order to keep up with new enrollees’ costs.

Those increases come even though Atkins said Pence’s administration did not include in its budget any money to expand the Medicaid program to include 500,000 more Hoosiers, as envisioned under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Largely due to those Medicaid funding increases, the state’s overall spending would grow about 1.4 percent under Pence’s spending plan.

Most state agencies, though, would see their funding frozen at current levels – with a few exceptions.

Pence’s budget proposal also boosts the Department of Child Service’s budget by 7 percent – or $35 million – to implement its plan to add more caseworkers and revamp its much-maligned statewide hotline.

It includes $6 million over two years to launch regional workforce councils that he plans to task with developing vocational and technical education curricula for their areas’ high schools.

And it pumps an extra $18 million over two years into improving the adult workforce, $12 million into a high school dropout prevention program, $6 million into grants for high-performing teachers and $3 million into an effort to more closely link universities with Indiana’s life sciences industry.

Only one area – the horse racing industry – would see its funding cut dramatically under Pence’s budget proposal. It would eliminate a subsidy worth more than $40 million and pump that money into Medicaid.

Pence’s budget would also shift $4 million away from a tobacco prevention council and devote that money to Medicaid.

Pence rescinds Daniels executive order on education board

In addition to signing six new executive orders, new Gov. Mike Pence rescinded one on Monday.

It was a move that shifted an education board’s oversight away from new State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz’s office.

Now-former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2011 had used an executive order to move the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board under an Indiana Department of Education that was then led by Republican Tony Bennett.

That order came shortly after Daniels signed into law a measure that limited teachers’ collective bargaining rights to wages and benefits – ending their influence over education policies and hiring and firing practices.

His executive order cited the Department of Education’s “extensive legal, regulatory and policy staff available to directly support” the board and its “new legal and fiscal responsibilities related to the proper implementation of collective bargaining reform.”

In November, though, Bennett was ousted by Ritz, a Democrat whose campaign was fueled with teachers’ displeasure over that new law and others.

The board’s chairman, Patrick Mapes – who had been a top Bennett aide, serving as assistant superintendent – asked Pence to rescind the Daniels executive order and move the board’s oversight back under the governor’s office, said Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault.

Ritz said she was “upset” over Daniels’ executive order in the first place and had no problem with Pence’s move.

“I think it should operate as a separate entity and not be swayed by anybody in the Department of Education,” she said. “I thought it was a conflict of interest.” ‘

Ritz won’t take oath of office with others Monday

Gov.-elect Mike Pence and Lt. Gov.-elect Sue Ellspermann will take the oath of office at a ceremony Monday outside the Statehouse, with about 1,500 individuals already registered to attend. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller will be sworn in for his second term with them.

But new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz won’t join them. Pence said Monday that Ritz will attend, but that her staff informed his shortly after the election that she would not be participating in the swearing-in ceremonies.

Niki Kelly of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reports that Ritz’s staff says she was technically sworn in by an elections division attorney on Dec. 12, in front of her students, and that she plans a ceremonial event on Jan. 19.

USI asks for extra $5 million

The University of Southern Indiana is asking for an extra $5 million in funding for each of the next two years – and state lawmakers sound willing to listen.

University president Linda Bennett delivered a 40-minute presentation on Thursday to the House Ways and Means Committee, which will take the leading role in drafting Indiana’s next two-year budget.

She told the panel that among Indiana’s four-year universities, USI has the lowest tuition rates and gets the least state funding per student.

As a result, she said, it is “quite frankly is facing very serious challenges in moving ahead” without more financial support than the $42.2 million that the General Assembly sent the university as general operating revenue in 2011 and 2012.

“The spirit is good, but the strain is showing,” Bennett said.

Republicans on the panel said they would like to give Bennett what she asked them for.

“The state has seen a need to increase your funding,” said Rep. Tom Dermody of LaPorte, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee’s higher education subcommittee.

“We are recognizing that an adjustment needs to be made,” Dermody said. “It’s time for an increase.”

Now that the state has weathered the worst of the recession, lawmakers are preparing to draft a new budget with extra cash to spend. Many are pointing to K-12 and higher education as areas that could see increased funding.

Teresa Lubbers, the state’s higher education commissioner, said in a speech Wednesday night that lawmakers should loosen the purse strings for universities.

In 2011 and 2012, lawmakers handed Indiana’s four-year universities an average of $7,562 per full-time student. However, USI got $4,586 per student – the least in the state, and the reason Bennett said it’s time for an “equity adjustment.”

She said USI was Indiana’s only university in that group that could not give faculty members a raise this year, and that without extra money, the university can’t recruit the full-time professors necessary to keep students on campus through graduation.

Bennett said the university hired advisers to help guide students through their courses for two of its four colleges this year, and plans to do the same for the remaining two colleges this fall – if lawmakers provide the funding she requested.

And, she said, USI’s professors carry a teaching load of about 12 credit hours per semester, or four three-hour courses. That, she said, is more than their peers at other universities.

“The combined impact of our lower tuition with the level of funding is that we were the only public university in the state of Indiana that could not offer a permanent salary increase to our employees for this year,” Bennett said.

“You add that to the overload on teaching and the strain, and you really do have a challenge for our institution. I have to say, it concerns us in terms of retention and it concerns us in recruitment.”

USI is also asking for $18 million to upgrade three buildings on campus and another $2.7 million for general repair costs. Those projects have the backing of the Commission for Higher Education.

Firm answers likely won’t come until April, when lawmakers receive an updated projection of how many tax dollars Indiana is likely to collect over the next two years, and then finalize their new budget before adjourning by the month’s end.

Kruse plans lengthy hearing on Common Core

State Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, says he plans to set aside four hours for his panel to discuss whether Indiana ought to continue to use Common Core standards.

They’ll be discussing a measure that would ditch Common Core, which was developed by a coalition of more than 40 states and heartily endorsed by President Barack Obama, and return Indiana to its old standards.

“A year ago, I voted against the bill, which is the same bill today. I will say in the last year, I have more concerns now than I had a year ago, and I think most people do. I think our leaders in the House and Senate both have expressed that – that they have some concerns, as well,” Kruse said.

He said more information on what Common Core means in classrooms is available now that books based on those standards are being printed and used.

“I think one of our biggest things is to try to keep state control of our standards and our schools. We don’t want to, I think, buy into federal control of our schools in Indiana. So I think we need to be cautious in that area so that we don’t have more federal authority come as a result of Common Core,” he said.

Kruse said lawmakers might consider keeping some elements of Common Core in place, melding it with the old state standards to come up with a hybrid.

That, he said, could be too big a task for 2013’s four-month, budget-writing session. He said lawmakers might work with incoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and try to develop something for the next year instead.