INDIANAPOLIS | Statehouse Republicans on Thursday touted their nearly half-billion-dollar boost to education funding as the top accomplishment of the just-completed legislative session, while Democrats bemoaned missed opportunities to help the state's shrinking middle class.
"We made the largest increase in our state's history," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "I think few people would have predicted we would have been there six months ago."
The $474 million in new elementary and high school funding pushes total K-12 state education spending to $16 billion, or 52 percent of Indiana's $31 billion two-year spending plan.
While most of the increase will go to growing suburban school districts, which often lost under prior funding formulas that prioritized at-risk and high poverty students, many urban districts still will end up with greater per pupil income by 2017.
"I think we're doing well by our urban schools, but clearly they're losing kids," said Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne. "You really have to adapt sometimes. Maybe you have to close some schools, but we're giving them creative ways to deal with the revenue."
Gary Community School Corp. in particular is in line to receive specialized financial advice from the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board, which is empowered to provide the district low-interest loans and forgiveness of past borrowing.
The Republican-controlled Legislature also approved measures awarding teachers a $100 income tax credit for classroom supply purchases, providing up to $500 per charter-school student for new facilities, dedicating $70 million to teacher performance pay and continuing the $10 million a year preschool pilot program in Lake and four other counties.
At the same time, lawmakers shortened the state takeover timeline for failing schools to four years instead of six, while also permitting friendly takeovers of public schools by charter school operators.
"I said last December that I wanted it to be an education session, and I think the results speak for themselves," said Gov. Mike Pence.
House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, wasn't buying it.
He said the Republicans were hiding behind their few education accomplishments hoping Hoosiers would forget about the "religious freedom" fiasco that damaged the state's reputation, the controversial repeal of the common construction wage and the "power grab" directed at State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, the only Democratic state officeholder.
"The people of Indiana have seen the results of a single-party stranglehold on state government, and they are not pretty," Pelath said.
More unfortunate, said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, were the missed opportunities to enact a minimum wage increase, promote gender pay equality and use some of the state's $2 billion budget reserve to create jobs and stop Hoosier earnings from continuing to fall behind the rest of the nation, with devastating effects on individuals and Indiana businesses.
"The supermajorities and the governor cannot manage Indiana's economy and that is painfully evident," Pelath said.