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Senate budget, with deep cuts for some schools, could see a vote Wednesday

Lawmakers begin the 2019 session in January. Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat

Deep funding cuts continue to loom for high poverty school districts as the Indiana Senate today made few changes to its budget plan, which is expected to get a vote Wednesday.

Democrats tried, but failed, to persuade their fellow senators to make changes to the next two-year Indiana budget today, including proposals to soften those cuts.

Separate budget plans, drawn up by Republican leaders of the House and Senate, would cost schools with mostly poor students and declining enrollment tens of millions of dollars over two years. In part that’s because both school funding plans change the way the state calculates how much extra money to give to districts with poor students who might start school academically behind their peers.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, offered five amendments before the full Senate, all of which failed in party-line votes, 40-10, some aiming to change the funding formula to help poor children. One of her proposals, for example, would have raised Kindergarten per-student funding, which has traditionally been less than that for other grades.

Phil Johnson, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said the full-day Kindergarten amendment was intended as a compromise between the House and Senate budgets and would help schools who saw major funding cuts. Tallian said no schools would be negatively affected by the change.

“The new school funding formula cut approximately $250 million,” Tallian said. “This amendment will put back $38 million in first year, $43 million in the second year, and it has this advantage: it gets a little extra money to nearly every school. There are a few schools that stay flat — there are no schools that lose by doing this.”

The Senate’s budget draft changes how the state would allocate that extra money for poor districts by changing the way poor children are counted. Under the Senate’s method, schools would get extra money for children who are in foster care or come from families receiving welfare or food stamps. That brings much less aid than what high poverty districts receive now.

But the Senate’s plan would phase in that change over five years, softening the blow for big urban districts like Indianapolis Public Schools. The House budget proposal would base poverty aid on the number of children who qualify for the federal free lunch program, which would cost IPS slightly more in lost aid.

IPS is slated to lose 6 percent in total state tuition aid by 2017 under the House’s version and 4.2 percent in total aid in the Senate’s plan. Suburban schools with growing enrollment generally end up with funding increases — IPS is the only district in Marion County to see cuts, while wealthy districts like Zionsville and Carmel see increases of about 10 percent under both plans.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, voted against the Kindergarten amendment, but he said he would consider the idea during a conference committee next week to work out differences in bills.

“We’ve tried to evaluate this, and we can’t quite decide which is the most equitable way to do this,” Kenley said. “So rather than pass this into the bill today, we would like to continue to work on this.

Tallian also raised concerns about a plan to eliminate a $4,800 cap for tax-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools while continuing a tax credit for voucher students that she said benefits mostly wealthy families. Both Republican budget plans include those provisions.

She proposed extending a $1,000 tax deduction to families with students in any public school, but that proposal also failed. The tax deduction currently applies only to families with children using vouchers or attending school at home. Tallian said it is unfair to poor families, who don’t have help with textbook costs and might also have to contribute to transportation costs.

“This is a question of fairness,” Tallian said. “If you are paying money to send your kid to school, why are we only making that tax deduction available to people who send their kids to private school, or who don’t send them to school at all but keep them at home?”

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