Bill prompts questions about virtual learning

The Associated Press/Report for America

INDIANAPOLIS — Proposals aimed at ensuring Indiana's public schools receive full funding for all students during the coronavirus pandemic have prompted criticism from virtual learning supporters and one of the state's top senators.

The widespread use of online learning since over the past year also has the leader of the Republican-dominated Indiana House advocating for giving full-time virtual schools the same state funding as traditional ones.

Similar Senate and House bills both redefine what constitutes a “virtual student” and ensure there would be no reduction in per-student funding for traditionally in-person schools, regardless of whether students are receiving instruction virtually or in the classroom due to COVID-19. The bills are on the fast track to passage.

A twice-yearly count of students attending schools is used to determine how much money the state allots to each facility. According to the bills, students will not be counted as “virtual” on Feb. 1 even if most or all of their learning takes place online.

Without that change, an estimated $160 million would be on the line for schools using hybrid formats or offering instruction online only as a means to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19. Current state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85% of full in-person student funding.

House Bill 1003 is headed to the Senate after receiving House approval Tuesday, and the Senate version is headed to the full chamber after passing the Senate Appropriations Committee 9-2 Thursday.

Even with the bills on their way to easy passage, virtual school supporters are asking why the 85% rule exists at all, noting that the legislation exempts regularly fulltime virtual schools.

“I want families that choose schools that fit their needs to be able to do so knowing that their children will receive the same funding," said school choice advocate Letrisha Weber. "Just as it isn’t fair to cut funding for schools or virtual education, it isn’t fair to keep existing virtual schools at the lower funding rates for teaching in a similar manner.”

Weber, an Indianapolis mother of two virtual school students, is suing the Indiana State Board of Education, alleging that a similar rule change the board made last fall to ensure schools would be fully funded for the current school year was unlawful.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ryan Mishler questioned why many schools across Indiana are continuing virtual learning 10 months into the pandemic. Most private schools have brought students back to classrooms, he said, but students in public schools “can’t get back in," causing them to fall behind.

“I think this bill just encourages our kids to stay home and receive virtual education,” said Mishler, one of two Republican senators who voted against the bill in committee Thursday. "As a senator, you can pat me on the back for giving you more money. But as a parent, I don’t think I can in good conscience vote for this bill. I think it is an injustice to our kids.”

Most Indiana schools offered both in-person and online options this school year, though some have gone fully virtual at times during periods of peak coronavirus spread.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said he has long supported giving virtual schools the same per-student funding as traditional public schools and expected the House budget plan that’s being prepared would provide 100% funding for virtual school students starting next fall.

“I think the pandemic has brought some other people that maybe weren’t very excited about that to see the light,” Huston said Thursday.

House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said more money shouldn’t be diverted from traditional public school districts that received 2% or less in funding increases in the current state budget while Indiana also faces troubles with lagging teacher pay.

“We need to make sure we have our priorities straight, fund public education and let’s keep our teachers in mind for pay raise,” GiaQuinta said.

The bills for this school year's funding are temporary fixes because they would expire at the end of the spring semester. Democratic lawmakers requested extensions in addition to language that would always exempt brick-and-mortar schools from the 85% reduction in funding.

“I’m still concerned that, come next fall, we’re not going to be over this yet," Sen. Karen Tallian said.

Republican Sen. Jeff Raatz, one of the Senate bill's authors, emphasized Thursday that the measure is only meant to ensure schools get money that's already been appropriated. Future state funding, he continued, should be addressed in the new state budget.

“That’s something we’ll deal with when it happens again,” Raatz said. “We know that the students do better in classroom. In my opinion, we just leave this thing alone and go forward.”

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