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Three Takeaways from Indiana Lawmakers’ Hearing on Funding, Poverty and English Learners.

As Indiana lawmakers prepare for budget discussions in next year’s legislative session, school officials are urging them to reconsider their approach to supplemental funding for students living in poverty.

This funding, which schools receive in addition to base funding for all students, has not kept pace with actual school costs, local district officials told members of a state legislative committee the last week.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that programs for English learners and special education are underfunded, district leaders said, forcing schools to spend more than poor students, but also students who require other additional services.

Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat who raised the issue before the committee, said he hopes those concerns lead to a discussion of adequate and fair funding in next year’s legislative session.

Here are three key points the committee’s Oct. 12 hearing covered.

Core funding leaves big gaps

Indiana’s base funding for all students has increased from $4.75 billion in 2015 to $6.3 billion in 2023, the Indiana Urban Schools Association told lawmakers in a presentation.

Yet the association found that additional aid for poor students rose from $1.15 billion to $700 million over the same period. (It was not immediately clear whether the numbers had been adjusted for inflation.)

The result is that funding for schools with fewer students living in poverty grew faster than funding for schools with more students living in poverty, the association said. The latter still receive more money per student on average because of the overall increases in base funding.

The additional funding is intended to fund case managers, counselors, alternative programs and classroom assistants.

Lawmakers also increased special education funding by $196 million in the 2021 budget. But schools sometimes spend even more on special education than they receive in state special education grants at school. districts, attorneys and district officials said.

This can let schools dip into their general fund — which includes money they receive from the state for students who live in poverty — to cover special education expenses.

Schools struggle with English learner services

Schools receive both federal funds and state funds specifically earmarked for the education of English language learners. But federal money usually can’t cover teachers’ salaries, and schools might have to turn to extra funding for students in poverty.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s English-learning student population has grown 42% since 2017. That has left districts unable to meet staffing recommendations set by the Indiana Department of Education. Indiana, even though they try to split the dollars between different groups of students. The department recommends one teacher for every 30 English learners.

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For example, Fort Wayne Chief Financial Officer Kathy Friend said the district is using $4.5 million of its $30 million complexity grant to hire teachers to serve English learners.

The district also used $3.4 million of its federal emergency funds to bring the student-teacher ratio down from 50-to-1 to 40-to-1, she said. (Indiana received approximately $3.1 billion in federal pandemic assistance to state education agencies and school districts.)

But despite using other funds to hire those teachers, Fort Wayne would need about $2 million to add 30 more teachers and meet the state-recommended ratio, Friend said.

“It’s a huge problem for us,” Friend said.

Bartholomew Community Schools spends $578,000 of its English Learner Teacher Education Fund and has a student-to-teacher ratio of 70, said Chad Phillips, district assistant superintendent for financial services. He added that funding isn’t the only challenge facing the statewide teacher shortage.

“If we publish 10 [English learner] positions today, we would have a candidate,” he said.

To help solve the problem, Phillips suggested integrating funding for students learning English into core or supplemental funding, instead of keeping it as a separate grant that must be renewed.

Counting children who qualify is not easy

Officials have also expressed concern that students who receive special education or English language learning services may not necessarily count towards the allocation of state aid to students with educational needs. additional.

This allocation is determined by the number of students in a school who are enrolled in food assistance programs or who are in foster care. Families enroll in these programs through the Family and Social Services Administration, and the Indiana Department of Education matches children with their schools to determine this funding.

Indiana and Illinois are the only states to rely on certification through benefit programs, according to the Indiana Urban Schools Association presentation.

Indiana transitioned to this system in 2015. Prior to that, the state relied on the student population of a school that received federally subsidized meals to determine additional state assistance – a common approach in other states. Since then, the number of registered students has increased from 250,000 in 2015 to 187,000 in 2022, according to the state’s urban schools group.

The new system was intended to provide a more accurate count. But critics say students miss it, either because their families don’t enroll in aid programs or because agency systems don’t align.

In Fort Wayne, for example, about 67 percent of students are eligible for subsidized meals, according to the district’s submission, while 29 percent were identified through the food assistance and foster care method.

Rethinking the methodology for identifying students experiencing poverty is a priority, Porter said.

“These numbers are neither adequate nor accurate,” Porter said of the current system.

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Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at [email protected]

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