Issues related to the care and education of children dominated discussion this week between Columbus area legislators and their constituents.
Audience members attending the weekly Third House legislative forum Monday posed multiple questions regarding the use of vouchers, which provide scholarships to help families of income-eligible students offset costs of tuition at participating private schools, as well as funding for charter schools.
Many participating in the discussion felt that too much educational funding previously earmarked for public schools is instead being routed to voucher programs.
More funding will be on its way to Indiana public schools, however, because 6,300 more students are enrolled in public education this year than anticipated, said State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus. In contrast, there are 4,100 fewer students in Indiana charter schools than lawmakers had projected, the local lawmaker said.
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As a result, the General Assembly is poised to add $16 million in additional appropriations for public education this year, he said.
“This is great news for those who support public education,” Smith said.
State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, whose district includes part of Bartholomew County, expressed his support for a different education funding approach — establishing education savings accounts.
The proposal would give parents up to $9,000 in state funds that otherwise would pay for their child’s public education to spend on whatever educational programs they believe are best, Lucas told the audience of nearly 60.
The Seymour lawmaker said 57 cents of every allocated dollar in state funding makes it to public school classrooms, down from 60 cents in 2005, he said.
After Lucas and State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, brought up achievements made by charter schools outside Bartholomew County, audience member Dennis Baute asked whether those private schools also have speech or physical therapists.
Walker took Baute’s question as an inquiry into whether private or charter schools enroll special-needs students.
“The selection should not be the school’s choice to make,” Walker told Baute. “Parents do that.”
If services are not available in local private schools for special-needs students, it likely means there’s currently no need for them among the current student population, Walker said.
However, special-needs students attend the private ABC-Stewart School in Columbus, director Mike Gorday said. Their needs are adequately served by staff from the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., due to a strong relationship his facility has established with the public school system, he said.
As he does one time every year, Gorday brought about a dozen ABC-Stewart sixth-graders who were allowed to ask every other question posed to Walker, Smith and Lucas during the hour-long forum.
When student Cate Roeder asked what was being done specifically for the poor, Walker said investments in education have traditionally been the best investment in fighting poverty.
The impact of changes in health care was the concern expressed by student Zachary Kiser. Indiana has its own health insurance programs such as HIP 2.0 to ensure children and young adults have health insurance, Walker said.
Also on the issue of child welfare, Smith said he has recommended to Gov. Eric Holcomb that he increase the salaries of case workers who counsel children and families, who are experiencing excessive job burnout.
The raise should be comparable to the 24 percent pay increase being provided over two years to Indiana State Police troopers, Smith said.
But Mary Kohen, a Democrat who is one of five candidates seeking the retiring Smith’s seat, asked for assurances that more caseworkers would be hired.
Smith gave her those assurances, saying there are currently several open case worker positions.
Steve Schoettmer, a Democrat who is seeking Lucas’ seat, said it’s difficult to see how the state can afford additional costs being considered.
House Bill 1005, which would require the smallest Indiana townships to merge with larger ones, will likely be shelved for the session this week, Smith said. Former supporters such as the Indiana Farm Bureau and the Indiana Township Trustees Association have pulled their support for the bill in the past few days, Smith said.
“Everybody was on board last week,” Smith said. “But now, it’s a moving target.”
Smith said he wants county officials to scrutinize every expenditure at the township level, but the bill does not provide the type of financial oversight that is needed, he said.
Although it’s been an uphill battle, Walker’s bill that establishes criteria for the 2021 redistricting process is moving ahead.
Senate Bill 326 passed the Senate later Monday on a 42-6 vote and moved on to the House for consideration after Feb. 12, Walker said.
Recent revisions have included eliminating voting districts not contiguous to one another, as well as the placing of a single precinct in two different counties, Walker said.
Another amendment include steps that Walker said should make it easier for third-party candidates to seek office.
Smith, who serves as chairman of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, did not comment about redistricting proposals.
The Columbus lawmaker received criticism a year ago for refusing to allow a vote in his committee on the establishment of an independent commission to draw legislative maps. Last year’s proposed legislation, he said, was flawed.
The General Assembly will not be in session from Wednesday through Friday this week.
Measures passed in the House will go to the Senate, and vice versa, starting the week of Feb. 12.
Proposals that pass both the House and Senate with identical language go directly to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb for his signature or veto.
State law requires the General Assembly adjourn for the year on or before March 14.
Third House Sessions, which allows the public to ask questions and express concerns to their state lawmakers, is scheduled to be held weekly through at least March 12.
Sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, the forum at 7:30 a.m. every Monday at Mill Race Center, near the corner of 8th and Lindsey streets.