Pence proposal for new Indiana budget boosts school funding, including charters, vouchers



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INDIANAPOLIS — Funding for Indiana schools would increase slightly over the next two years, with much of that money going toward additional spending for private school vouchers and charter schools under Republican Gov. Mike Pence's budget proposal released Thursday.

The governor's plan presented to legislators would increase school funding by 2 percent, or $134 million, in the first year of the state budget, and then by 1 percent in the second year.

It would give $1,500 more per student for charter schools at an estimated cost of $41 million over the two years. It also lifts the school voucher program's limit on per-student funding, which the Pence administration projects will cost $4 million yearly.

The governor's proposal for spending about $31 billion over two years would leave the state with a reserve of nearly $2 billion without any proposed tax changes, said Chris Atkins, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Democrats, who are badly outnumbered in the General Assembly, said Pence's proposals for additional voucher and charter school spending will come at the expense of traditional public schools. They also faulted the plan for not adding money for needs such as hiring more child welfare case workers while spending cash on some $700 million in building and highway projects.

The budget proposal kept total state spending growth to about 1.3 percent over the next two years, Atkins said, even though a report released last month projected that state tax revenues could grow by double that amount.

Atkins said the administration wanted to hold spending down because tax revenues have been some $240 million short this fiscal year from what was projected when legislators approved the last state budget in 2013.

"A cautious approach on the spending side will help cushion us against similar ups and downs," he said.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has until late April to approve the new budget, with the House taking it up in the coming weeks.

But Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage said Pence's plan was full of "fuzzy math" on how much more it will cost to pay for vouchers as the number of students in the program — now nearly 30,000 — will continue to grow.

"We need to pay for it and this budget doesn't do that," said Tallian, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said the total increase for education spending will see much debate among legislators. He said he supported more money for charter schools because they don't receive local property tax money like traditional school districts, and that the voucher program is important to give education options to families.

"The bottom line is they're all Hoosier children and we want them all to get an education," Brown said.

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