Indiana Senate leader Rodric Bray had little interest in how online-only schools were funded in 2019, when some lawmakers called for a summer study committee to examine spending in the wake of a virtual-school scandal that cost Indiana taxpayers more than $68 million.
Bray, who was among the legislators who accepted and later donated campaign cash from officials tied to the now-closed schools, said there were more pressing issues to consider. He did not assign the topic to an interim study committee last year.
Today, however, the Senate president pro tem appears to have much interest in the topic. In spite of assurances from Gov. Eric Holcomb and other legislative leaders that Indiana schools wouldn't face budget cuts, Bray issued a letter last week warning school officials they will face a 15% cut in funding if they offer only online instruction, which 31 districts initially plan to do out of concern for COVID-19. In some cases, their local county health departments have ordered them to offer only online instruction.
“Current state law stipulates that schools will receive 85% of the normal foundation funding for any student who receives at least half of his or her instruction virtually,” Bray wrote in a letter sent to the directors of the associations representing school leaders. “Changing this policy would require legislation to be passed by the General Assembly in our next session.”
The legislature doesn't meet until Organization Day in mid-November, unless Bray and other Republican leaders reconsider their quick rejection of Democrats' call for a special session to address racial justice and pandemic-related issues.
Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said Bray's letter – and its timing – were disappointing. He noted that an overwhelming number of the state's districts opted for in-person return to classes.
“For some, the delay (for reopening buildings) was only for a few weeks, not indefinitely,” Spradlin said. “For some of those districts, the decision was based on the availability of (personal protective equipment), and cleaning supplies, and hiring additional bus monitors, food service workers, nurses and substitute teachers. The pandemic has generated a whole slew of extra administrative burdens than a normal school year typically presents. So, trying to provide instruction in multiple ways – in person, hybrid, or e-learning completely, and then the additional cost and complexities facing school boards and school districts – it's just a disappointment.”
The governor responded to Bray's letter Friday by insisting his pledge to fully fund schools stands. But the political overtones to the funding message are clear. Bray channels threats made by federal lawmakers, including 3rd District Congressman Jim Banks, for public school districts to reopen or face financial consequences.
And others are on board. State Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Syracuse, released a statement urging Elkhart County schools to reconsider their decision to follow the public health officer's recommendation not to reopen in person. He urged his constituents to contact the health officer, county commissioners and governor's office to express their concerns.
Bray, Doriot and some Republican leaders represent solid-red districts where strong-arming school districts to open will win favor with many voters. But not all Senate and House districts are as solidly Republican and some districts represented by GOP lawmakers, including Hamilton Southeastern Schools north of Indianapolis, are offering only virtual instruction. Constituents there will not be happy to settle for reduced funding.
All voters should be unhappy with Bray's position. Holcomb wisely advised school leaders to follow local health guidance, and he and GOP budget leaders promised a waiver would be granted for schools offering virtual classes. Now their colleague is wrongly applying state law governing online instruction to brick-and-mortar schools forced into online learning by a pandemic.
The Senate leader passed on an opportunity to examine virtual funding a year ago. This year, he should resist bullying traditional public schools into reopening on his terms. Tell local lawmakers and Gov. Holcomb that Bray's approach is unacceptable.