INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Top Indiana Republicans are touting their state budget plan that increases base school funding by 2.5% percent each of the next two years as making strides toward improving teacher pay.
Gov. Eric Holcomb joined GOP legislative leaders Tuesday and announced a budget deal that's expected to be approved Wednesday as this year's General Assembly session ends.
Republican leaders said they are also helping school districts by paying off $150 million of their teacher pension obligations and boosting a program that gives one-time stipends to teachers. They calculate that various program funding increases will lead to a 4.5% increase in money to schools -- although that will vary greatly by district, and includes funding increases for the state's private school voucher program and charter schools.
Holcomb and other Republicans had talked of the importance of improving the state's lagging teacher salaries since before the legislative session began in January. But their funding proposals never came close to the 9% increase that education advocacy groups estimated was needed to boost Indiana's average teacher pay to the midpoint of neighboring states.
Holcomb said the budget plan responsibly directs more money to schools and protects the state's cash reserves of about $2 billion while a teacher pay commission he appointed in February begins its work.
"As we're working on these short-term, immediate needs, we're simultaneously working on a long-term plan to systemically increase teacher pay," he said.
The governor and legislative leaders were joined at Tuesday's budget announcement in the House chamber by officials from six groups representing school boards and school administrators, but no teacher organizations.
Hundreds of teachers attended Statehouse rallies and local demonstrations calling for greater funding increases. The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union, said Tuesday it appreciated the state's best school funding boost in 11 years but will continue to fight for more money.
"ISTA presented reasonable goals for funding increases to the legislature, however, policymakers remain unwilling to expand revenue to address long-term public education funding issues and teacher pay," ISTA President Teresa Meredith said in a statement. "Our members are just getting started and will continue advocacy efforts into the future.
Democrats have argued the state could direct more money to schools by either tapping the state's cash reserves, which total about 11% of annual state spending, or suspending corporate tax cuts previously approved.
An analysis provided by Democrats shows the GOP spending plan increases traditional school funding by about 2% a year, while charter schools will see 10% more money and private school voucher funding goes up 9% the first budget year and about 5.5% the second year.
"Republicans continue to prioritize unaccountable charter and voucher schools at the expense of traditional public schools," said House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne. "Despite Republican leadership claiming this is a historic increase in K-12 funding, it's clear that our traditional public schools will not receive the resources they need."
Another provision in the budget deal trims an additional $572 million over the next two years requested by Holcomb toward allowing the state's troubled Department of Child Services to keep hundreds of new caseworkers. The plan allocates $502 million more to the agency as budget writers say its growth in expenses has slowed.
"The administration has done a phenomenal job of driving down DCS costs and they should be credited for that," said Republican House Ways and Means Committee co-chairman Todd Huston of Fishers.
The plan also allocates an unexpected $185 million toward extension and improvement projects for the South Shore commuter rail line that runs between South Bend and Chicago. That money comes from a $1 billion payment that the operator of the Indiana Toll Road paid in a deal allowing a 35 percent fee increases for large trucks.
Lawmakers are taking that money from a pool of nearly $800 million that Holcomb had designated to speed up completion of the Interstate 69 extension between Martinsville and Indianapolis and projects on U.S. Routes 20, 30 and 31.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said the governor's staff indicated they had sufficient money in highway reserve accounts to pay for those highway projects and keep them on schedule.