Since at least the 1980s, the Indiana PTA has advocated for the state to eliminate textbook rental fees for families of Hoosier school kids.

Routinely, a state legislator proposes a bill the end of those fees.

“That gets introduced year after year, session after session,” said Rachel Burke, president of the Indiana Parent Teacher Association.

And, year after year, the Indiana General Assembly gives those bills a shrug. “That’s a pretty accurate description,” Burke said by phone from Indianapolis this week.

It should happen, though.

The state constitution calls for “a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” In Gov.

Eric Holcomb’s State of the State address in January, he aptly called textbook rental fees “a disguised tax to be levied on parents each year.”

Only seven states let parents be charged for their kids textbooks fees. Indiana remains one of those states. It shouldn’t be.

Holcomb proposed the elimination of textbook rental fees and other classroom materials for all public school students.

And, most importantly, the governor called for a separate line-item in the Indiana budget to adequately cover the cost of eliminating those fees to parents. Holcomb’s plan would direct an additional $120 million to Hoosier school districts to cover the expense by broadening an existing program that pays textbook and classroom materials fees for low-income families, according to The Associated Press.

“When we heard that, we were thrilled,” Burke recalled of Holcomb’s speech on Jan. 10.

“We thought that was a great idea.”

Apparently, the Republican leadership in the Indiana House wasn’t quite so enamored.

Last week, the GOP-led House approved a budget calling for the elimination of textbook fees and classroom materials.

But rather than including state funding for textbooks and materials, the GOP budget calls for local school districts to pay the added cost, according to a report Thursday by the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

The textbook plan, part of the House Bill 1001 budget package, now goes to the state Senate.

While the House version of the budget includes $2 billion in new funds for K-through-12 education, that also includes a doubling of the already overly large allotment of taxpayer funds for private school vouchers. So, public schools would end up using nearly 20% of their increased funding to pay for textbooks, the Capital Chronicle reported, and inflation on existing expenses would eat up the districts’ remaining new funds. “It shifts the burden from parents to the local schools, and unfortunately that creates another unfunded mandate,” Burke said.

The Indiana PTA has for decades wanted the state to end textbook rental and classroom materials fees for parents, “but we’re also opposed to unfunded mandates for public schools,” Burke said.

The misguided plan to significantly divert more state funding for private-school vouchers would make it more difficult for public schools to absorb the responsibility of paying for all textbooks and classroom materials.

“That [voucher] money could instead be going to public schools and to cover textbooks, with plenty to spare,” Burke said.

Wabash Valley schools were optimistic after hearing the governor’s plan in January. As the Tribune-Star’s Sue Loughlin reported, administrators at local districts pointed out that the task of collecting textbook fees cumbersome and time-consuming for small schools. Also, even with the transition from physical textbooks to digital textbooks read on laptops, the textbook companies still charge for use of that content.

Burke estimates the cost of textbook-rental and classroom-materials fees statewide average $85 to $105 for kids younger than high school-age. High school students’ fees vary more, depending on the type of courses they study. Advanced placement and construction courses may require higher fees, she said.

“It is not unusual to pay upwards of $300 for a high school student,” Burke said of the cumulative fees.

“We have spoken to parents that have had to steer students from particular classes because of the textbook fees involved, which isn’t fair to the students,” Burke said.

The Indiana School Boards Association supports Holcomb’s budget plan pertaining to funding school corporations for the cost of eliminating textbook rental fees currently imposed on parents, Terry Spradlin, executive director of the ISBA said by email Friday. The inclusion of a line-item “with adequate appropriation for his cost” earned the ISBA ’s approval.

By contrast, the current House Bill 1001 budget plan in the Legislature “bakes in textbook costs inside the student funding formula, and we assume is part of the $679-million in [fiscal year] 2024 increases,” Spradlin said. “After that, school corporations will have to plan to use Education Fund dollars to fully cover textbook costs, and if student funding formula increases decline or a minimal in the future, decide whether to pay teachers more or cover the escalating costs of textbooks.

“There will be significant unintended consequences with this funding mechanism,” Spradlin added.

Those consequences include weighing a boost in pay for teachers — something perpetually necessary to keep young educators from leaving the profession — against paying for parents’ textbook and classroom materials fees. Schools will stick with old textbooks longer, perhaps even as their content becomes obsolete, Spradlin said. Some schools may resort to keeping a single set their classrooms, rather than distributing them to the kids for home studies.

There is hope, though. The Senate could use the governor’s version of proper state funding for textbooks.

“We’re hoping that the Senate can help remedy it,” Burke said.
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