Updated Aug. 8 at 11:45 a.m.
A top lawmaker in Indiana is warning schools they could lose out on 15 percent of state funding if they start the new school year only online.
Sen. President Pro Tempore Rod Bray (R-Martinsville) sent a letter to school leaders Thursday, saying they could risk up to 15 percent of their state funding if they do not offer in-person classes this fall.
The letter cites a 2019 law restricting virtual school funding, and says there's "no guarantee" schools would be provided an exemption to the law if they do not provide an in-person school option for families this fall.
Kokomo School Corporation superintendent and president of the Indiana Urban Schools Association Jeff Hauswald says the 2019 law was made without a pandemic to consider. And right now, it's not always up to school leaders whether or not they can bring people into buildings.
"When the local health department, when local government officials require school districts to go to e-learning because of the situations in their county or their community it seems a bit unfair that those districts could see a loss of up to 15 percent of the funding," he said.
Before the letter went public, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said stable funding is critical for school leaders as they face increased costs to provide multiple types of instruction at once, and meet other health and safety requirements and recommendations during the pandemic.
"That's why I have no patience when I'm hearing the conversation about schools that send those kids virtual need to take that 15 percent cut for those virtual students," she said.
After the letter was received by the department, McCormick released a statement saying she and other education leaders were "extremely disappointed" to receive such a warning – especially after many schools have already started the new academic year.
“The fluidity created by this pandemic has already added undue burden to districts who are focused on establishing and maintaining safe learning environments for students and staff. A potential 15 percent cut per pupil is not sustainable at a time districts are working hard to create multiple learning platforms," McCormick said in a statement.
Superintendent Hauswald said districts would be hard-pressed to find other sources of immediate funding to make up any gaps that schools would face if the state were to follow through with cutting budgets for those that operate virtually. He said many have already crafted their budgets for the year.
Bray's message also runs counter to assurances state leaders made in June, that schools would receive full funding for the 2020-2021 school year as the pandemic continues. The state's top budget leaders – as well as Gov. Eric Holcomb – publicly assured schools they support fully funding education this year, even if schools offer virtual instruction.
As of Friday morning, the State Department of Education reports more than 40 school corporations are starting the new academic year virtually. That includes MSD Martinsville, which resides within the district Bray represents in the General Assembly.
The response from teachers unions was swift after the letter was shared with school leaders.
The state's largest teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, said now is not the time for leaders to "play politics."
"Sen. Bray’s letter to superintendents on school funding doesn’t create clarity, it creates confusion at a time when school districts are doing all they can to protect educators, students and members of their communities," it said in a statement. "The law Bray references wasn’t intended for traditional public schools offering remote instruction temporarily during a pandemic – and he knows it."
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And president of the American Federation of Teachers Indiana GlenEva Dunham in a statement urged Governor Holcomb to address the issue, comparing it to threats made at the federal level by President Donald Trump.
“The educators, students and families of Indiana need answers from Gov. Holcomb, and we need them now,” Dunham said in a statement. “As cases of COVID-19 surge across the state, particularly in Black and brown communities, tying school funding to in-person reopening is not only reckless, it’s a brazen political move right out of Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos’ playbook."
After pushback from the initial letter with school leaders, Bray shared an additional statement and said it was meant to clarify previous comments.
"In the past week, a number of internal conversations made it clear that it had become conventional wisdom among schools that they would receive full funding for virtual students even if remote learning was their only method of instruction for the school year. Since this was not something my leadership team or I had considered, I felt it was necessary to clarify that agreement," the statement read.
McCormick is calling on Governor Holcomb to request a special legislative session to address the issue.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Holcomb said he remains committed to fully funding schools.
"As I've said before, I am committed to providing 100 percent funding to schools as they navigate the unprecedented challenges of opening the academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic," Holcomb said in a statement. "Many schools are returning with classroom instruction thanks to the herculean efforts of our public health officials, educators, students, parents and communities. They all need our support now more than ever."
House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers) also emphasized his support for fully supporting schools in a statement of his own. He says House Republicans remain committed to supporting schools with 100 percent funding during the pandemic.
"The last thing we want is unnecessary distractions as everyone works tirelessly to begin the new school year safely and provide high-quality instruction to all students," he said in a statement.
This story has been updated.