State Rep. Matt Lehman gestures while talking at Saturday meeting. (Photo by J Swygart)
State Rep. Matt Lehman and State Sen. Travis Holdman would like to see their colleagues in the Indiana General Assembly take a break from additional school reforms during the current legislative session.
Their constituents apparently feel otherwise.
Lehman, R-Berne, and Holdman, R-Markle, fielded questions for 90 minutes Saturday morning during a town hall-style meeting in Decatur. And the bulk of those questions focused on … you guessed it … education.
Additional funding for K-12 schools? Charter schools? An expansion of the state’s voucher program? Relaxed standards for school superintendents? Equitable merit pay for Indiana teachers? All were questions posed by the dozen or so local residents in attendance, even after the local lawmakers suggested a moratorium on tinkering with the state’s education woes.
“There are a host of education issues being discussed at the Statehouse, and frankly I’m ready to take a breather,” said Holdman. “I think we need to just settle down, sit back and see how things are working first.”
Lehman mostly agreed, although he has authored legislation that would make it easier for school districts to sell vacant buildings. Current state law requires districts to wait four years before selling a site to allow potential charter schools to buy or lease vacant buildings. Lehman’s bill reduces that waiting period to two years, and allows districts to seek a state waiver if no charter school expresses an interest within 30 days of the district’s expressed intent to sell.
The legislation has passed the House 98-0 and now awaits action in the Senate.
A recent decision by Ball State University officials to end the affiliation with seven charter schools in the state “shows the system is working,” said Holdman.
“Those charters should have been pulled,” Lehman added, “because the schools were not meeting state standards. Charter schools are public schools, and they need to be held to the same accountability as any other school district.”
Asked if a state budget surplus will allow lawmakers to direct additional funding to K-12 education beyond a proposed 1 percent increase this year, Holdman and Lehman said that decision will be impacted by a host of other issues.
“There will be no surplus when we’re done, because that money is being used for other purposes,” Holdman said. He cited Gov. Mike Pence’s call for a 10 percent reduction in the personal income tax, a reduction in the corporate income tax and the expansion of Medicaid as all having an effect on school funding as examples.
“There is an appetite in the Senate for more funding for K-12 education,” Holdman said. “I’d like to see more than a 1 percent increase. Our goal is to fully fund kindergarten this year.”
Lehman said a drastic reduction in state gaming revenues will also make it difficult to find more money for schools, and added that the Affordable Care Act (commonly called “Obamacare”) and the amount of money needed to increase Medicaid benefits is “the big elephant in the room.”
“I’d like to see more money go to schools, but the reality is we have to look atthe fiscal impact. The issue is making sure we have enough money and then putting it where it’s most important,” the state rep said.