INDIANAPOLIS — COVID-19 concerns and a winter storm couldn’t stop Carla Schmid from her story about fighting for special education services for her son, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 2.

“We were scared, vulnerable parents who had no idea what his future would look like or how to best support him,” Schmid, an Indianapolis native, said. “He is now in first grade and continues to thrive at our neighborhood public school with a part-time aide and many supports in place … none of it would have been possible without fully funded public schools.”

Schmid and other public school advocates gathered virtually Monday to rally against the House Republicans’ proposed budget, which cuts public school funding in favor of vouchers, caps complexity funding and establishes an Education Scholarship Account program for children with special education needs.

“Taking money away from a system that has built-in accountability and is working – in spite of budget cuts and the harm the voucher program has done – makes no sense,” Schmid said. “The budget that’s currently being considered gives special needs parents ‘choices’ to non-public schools and programming that cannot or will not adequately serve our special needs children.”

Jenny Smithson, of the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education, also pushed against the budget and accompanying bill, House Bill 1005, which expands the state’s scholarship account.

“Private schools often accept a student without much thought to the amount of support the student might need or (the staff needed). … Without proper support and services, many students will and do fail,” Smithson said. The family’s “only recourse is to re-enroll in the public school system. … When they do so, we pick up the pieces without the (student) funding.”

Smithson criticized the lack of oversight for the scholarship fund, saying it lacks guardrails to limit fraud from schools and companies “that will make empty promises to your child.”

Governor, House Republicans propose budgets

Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed spending $377 million on K-12 schools over the next biennium, a slight increase, similar to the House Republicans’ proposal to spend $378 million. However, the House budget would spend far less money on public schools than Holcomb’s budget because $66 million would be used to expand the state’s school voucher program.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, has repeatedly defended school voucher increases, saying “money follows the student” and emphasizing the need for parents to have choices.

House Bill 1005 would expand eligibility for the school voucher program and create a new Education Scholarship Account program, costing an estimated $33 million annually. Money sent to charter schools and innovation schools for student enrollment would increase from $750 to $1,250.

The scholarship account would be available to special education students, foster children and children of active-duty service members. Funding could be used for school expenses, such as tuition or school supplies.

Critics point to a similar K-12 scholarship fund abused in Arizona that was so poorly audited and tracked that parents possibly spent education dollars at beauty shops or on sporting goods. Some simply kept the money and enrolled their children at public schools.

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, criticized the budget for creating a system of “haves and have-nots” at the expense of public schools during a pandemic.

“My colleagues across the aisle believe they have a right to determine which child’s future is worth investing in and which is not. The ‘money follows the child’ mantra has been, and always will be, a weak excuse for defunding the public school system,” Porter said in a statement. “If this proposal stands, school districts could lose up to nearly 10% of funding and tens of thousands of students could suffer.”

Educators point to another omission in both Republican budgets: no money to increase teacher salaries.

Just two months ago, the Next Level Teacher Compensation report identified several steps Indiana could take to increase teacher wages, which ranked 38th in the nation for the 2018-2019 school year and ninth in the Midwest.

The report found that teacher wages hadn’t kept with wages and suffered after the 2008 recession, calling for at least $600 million to close the gap.

Unlike other states, Indiana school corporations rely heavily on state funding rather than local taxes. Less than one-third, 30%, of corporation funding comes from these local sources. Because of this, the report called for legislative action to increase teacher salaries.

Huston has said that salaries should be determined at the local level – though the state has limited local funding options and hasn’t increased school funding relative to inflation.

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