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Holcomb calls for school funding to increase, without committing to how much

Gov. Eric Holcomb between two flags.
Gov. Eric Holcomb called on lawmakers to boost education spending this legislative session “in an amount to be determined.”
Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Gov. Eric Holcomb appears poised to continue his slow push to increase teacher pay in Indiana, pledging Thursday to review recommendations from his commission but stopping short of calling for a substantial funding increase.

Holcomb’s legislative priorities, announced Thursday morning during a conference hosted by the law firm Dentons, called on lawmakers to boost education spending this legislative session “in an amount to be determined.” Holcomb will base his funding requests on the state revenue forecast, released Wednesday, which projects steady income but leaves little room for a dramatic addition to the K-12 budget.

“We’re living in a time of a public health emergency that had an equal impact on our finances,” Holcomb told reporters after his announcement Thursday. “We have to obviously play the hand that we’re dealt.”

A commission created by Holcomb two years ago recently recommended a sizable state funding increase to raise teacher salaries. Its 182-page report released Monday called for Indiana to significantly raise teacher pay, at a cost of $600 million each year, in order to compete with neighboring Midwestern states.

Holcomb said he has made teacher pay a top priority and noted that the state protected K-12 schools from funding cuts during the coronavirus and increased education funding in the last budget.

When it comes to increasing teacher pay, “we will try to make as much gain as we can every single year that we are here,” Holcomb said.

To achieve the goal of paying teachers an average $60,000 salary, the commission said, the state will more than likely need to increase revenue. But there is little indication that lawmakers will support a tax increase amid the financial turmoil of COVID-19. Holcomb said he was not looking to raise taxes.

Educators may have to wait until 2023, when lawmakers hash out the next budget, to achieve the funding increase recommended by the teacher pay commission if lawmakers have an appetite for it at all.

As Holcomb goes into his second term, he’s also taking more control of education. He is calling for consolidating state education agencies under his first appointed schools chief, who replaces an independently elected official. He proposed putting the operations of the once-competing Indiana State Board of Education under the state Department of Education, in addition to putting the state charter school board staff under his appointee’s control.

The governor also put his support behind a plan to maintain full funding for virtual learning during the pandemic. Schools typically receive about 85% of the typical per-pupil funding for educating students remotely.

A bill to increase virtual funding appears likely to pass quickly. Lawmakers promised during a panel discussion Thursday that they would expedite a bill early in the session.

“We’re going to run a fast-tracked bill so it’s seamless,” said Senate education Chairman Jeff Raatz. “There will never be a question on the 100% piece.”

Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.

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