Textbook fees, complexity need state investment
It’s past time for Indiana lawmakers to pay for student textbooks. (Getty Images)
There was lots of talk during special session on how to get money in Hoosiers’ hands from the state’s unprecedented $6.1 billion surplus. Cutting gas taxes, suspending utility taxes and sending refund checks were just a few.
Ultimately lawmakers settled for a $1 billion rebate. The problem is millions of Hoosiers are still waiting for the first automatic taxpayer refund. And the second one could take months.
One change that would have had an immediate impact is eliminating state textbook fees.
Kids around the state are returning to schools this week – don’t get me started on that – and parents are shelling out hundreds in textbook fees for what is supposed to be a free public education.
How can Indiana still be one of only seven states to charge parents for books in the first place?
To make matters worse, the Indiana General Assembly created a $1,000 tax deduction for children who go to private school or are homeschooled. Parents can claim any approved educational expenses such as tuition, textbooks, fees, software, tutoring and supplies.
But parents of public school children are not eligible.
And they are sued for those textbook fees too – even during the pandemic. A ProPublica report noted hundreds of lawsuits filed in 2020 by Mishawaka City Schools.
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A bill is filed virtually every year on the topic – usually by a Democrat.
Earlier this year it was Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis. Senate Bill 335 would have required each public school to provide curricular materials – i.e. textbooks and other materials – at no cost to each student enrolled in the public school. It established the Curricular Materials Fund to provide state advancements for costs incurred by public schools.
The cost would have been a maximum $68 million annually to the state General Fund.
Those bills are never given a hearing, and often similar amendments are voted down by Republicans.
Perhaps this can be part of the conversation when lawmakers return in January to craft a new biennial state budget. After all, it is pretty clear the state has plenty of money and can afford these long-overdue investments.
And while they are at it, legislators should invest in another low-hanging education issue – the learning gap for poor and/or minority students. The best way to do this is to put their money where their mouth is — the complexity index in the state’s school funding formula.
That index takes into account that some students have increased needs and funds them at a higher rate.
A WFYI story from the last budget cycle in 2021 said in the past seven years, the amount of state dollars budgeted for complexity decreased by 41%. And the definition of how those kids are counted has also been changed.
Legislators have been more focused on per student base funding than lifting up those who need extra help. Here’s the thing though – the state can and should do both.
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