RICHMOND, Ind. — Two of Wayne County’s three legislators answered citizen questions Friday morning, and half of the questions addressed funding for education.
State Sen. Jeff Raatz and Rep. Brad Barrett participated in the year’s first Legislative Forum sponsored by Indiana University East. Rep. Tom Saunders did not attend. The virtual forum was broadcast by WCTV and streamed on IU East’s Facebook page. Questions were asked through the Facebook page.
Four of those questions involved money the state budget designates for education. Barrett, the Republican who represents District 56, noted that the state is finding itself in better fiscal shape than expected after the COVID-19 pandemic, and funding allotments would be adjusted after final revenue numbers are provided in mid-April.
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One questioner asked about proposed funding cuts for career and technical education.
“The idea of the high school student goes to college and gets a high-paying job is a thing of the past,” said Barrett, who is beginning his second term after being elected during 2018. “We’re evolving as a legislature to say a lot of other viable options available.”
Raatz, a Republican who began representing District 27 in 2014, chairs the Senate’s Education and Career Development Committee and sits on the School Funding Subcommittee. He said legislators are looking at where the state will be in a decade or two, and that involves a variety of careers.
Raatz said legislators are committed to giving Indiana students the opportunity to pursue a variety of careers, especially those in high demand and paying high wages in Indiana.
The legislators also addressed a question that insinuated the legislature is shifting funding away from public schools and to private schools. Raatz and Barrett denied that’s so.
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“There’s no massive shift,” Raatz said. “We sent a billion dollars over four years into the K-12 space, gladly. We’re supporting our education system. It’s not a massive shift by any means.”
He added that the legislature attempts to protect public schools so Indiana students receive the best education possible. The legislature must be careful when sending money to schools, he said, because it must be sustainable from year to year.
Barrett said that 94.5% of school funding is provided to public schools when those schools have 93.2% of the students, so in essence, public schools receive a disproportionate piece of the funding. He added that providing parents education options for their children is important.
“In reality, one of my thoughts is that school choice is important, and that a parent should have absolute control of their child’s education,” Barrett said. “There’s a great opportunity to put the student in the best educational venue for that student.”
Another question addressed a drop in funding for students with additional needs. Raatz said the complexity index provides funding above the normal student funding for students who have special challenges. Legislators several years ago provided a floor to make sure funding could dip only so far when factors such as lower unemployment impacted the index.
“At the end of the day, we have continually increased the amount of money for students,” said Raatz, noting that legislators are always looking for indicators that would help direct money to children with special education needs.
The legislators were also asked about boosting teacher pay. Raatz acknowledged that a recent study indicated Indiana teachers were paid less than in surrounding states and about $600 million annually would be needed to even the pay. He said $350 million has been put into the distributions to local schools.
“It’s a work in progress, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
He and Barrett also pointed out that the legislature only has so much impact on teacher salaries. It provides schools with funding, but the schools decide how that money is spent, including negotiations with teacher unions.
Barrett said secondary education, public health and higher education are three critically important issues for the legislature.
“We’d like to maintain that balance and make sure we’re doing the best for our students,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for mental health services, and one question asked why mental health funding is being cut. Barrett, who chairs the House’s Public Health Committee, said there’s a small area of cut among a much larger policy that actually increases access to mental health care.
Barrett said that telemedicine has an impact, as does licensing changes and allowing social workers to identify mental health issues helps expand the number of mental health providers. He said transportation barriers are also being removed.
“We are absolutely increasing access to care,” Barrett said. “I think the state is responding appropriately in that field.”
Raatz and Barrett responded to a question about voting security and requirements by saying there has been much discussion. Barrett said one representative will adamantly say there’s no fraud, then another will step up and claim to be a victim of election fraud. He said the key issue is making sure that every vote that’s properly cast counts.
Raatz agreed that any new technologies or procedures must be properly vetted to make sure an election is secure and that safeguards catch instances of fraud.
Both said Wayne County has done a remarkable job of providing opportunities for voters through early voting at vote centers and the Wayne County Courthouse, including on Saturdays.
To a question regarding hate crimes, especially those now directed toward Asian Americans, both Raatz and Barrett said Indiana’s previous hate crimes legislation was structured to include any group because different groups can be targeted at any particular time.
“We fixed the problem,” Barrett said. “We have a hate-crime policy in Indiana that if a judge determines that an offense falls within that category there are aggravators that can be used in sentencing. We structured our laws very appropriately at that time.”
When answering a question about Indiana possibly implementing gun licenses, the legislators indicated the issue is complicated by the fact gun ownership is a constitutional right.
“Laws apply to law-abiding citizens but there are others who circumvent the rules,” Barrett said.
Raatz said the concept creates interesting problems because of the constitutional issue and that the legislature wants residents to maintain their constitutional rights while also taking safety into account.
A second Legislative Forum will be 8 a.m. Friday, April 16.
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