Lawmakers are questioning the governor’s proposal to scrap textbook fees

Indiana spends half of its budget on education.

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposal to pick up the bill for textbooks and curriculum materials for most Hoosier schoolchildren in grades K-12 raises some questions during the first week of meetings at the statehouse.

The House Ways and Means Committee, the committee that holds the purse strings on the House side of the state’s budget process, had some questions Thursday for the people presenting the governor’s budget proposals.

Indiana spends half its budget on education, and the governor wants $160 million of that education cost to cover textbooks and tuition for most Hoosier families.

He even made the suggestion part of Tuesday night’s state of the state address, noting a mother in the audience who he said paid more than $600 for textbooks for her four children last year.

“Our state constitution promises tuition-free education. Let’s cover the full cost of the tuition fees paid by parents like Mandy so that by next school year no parent will get such a terrible bill,” the governor said during his address in the House of Representatives.

Right now, the state only pays for the textbooks of children who eat free or reduced lunches, regardless of what type of school they attend, whether traditional public, public, or private school.

Holcomb wants to change that to include kids from kindergarten through 12th grade in traditional public and public schools, no matter how much money their parents make.

So what about kids who attend private schools and don’t qualify for the free and discounted lunch program? Does the state also pay for their school books?

For now, under the governor’s current budget proposal, the answer is no, which has raised some questions about the fairness of the proposal.

“I’m just an advocate for all parents, not just some parents. All of them because they pay property taxes to a school they don’t attend. You pay income taxes. They pay sales taxes that go to a school system they don’t use. It seems like it should be leveler at first glance,” said Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-District 52, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Greg Porter, D-District 96, who sits on the same committee, said Democratic lawmakers have long supported similar proposals to cover student textbooks.

“I’m not against parents having that kind of thing. I’m trying to create parity for all students in the state of Indiana,” he said.

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives say they are still considering the proposal, but it was not included on their list of actions they plan to take at this session on Thursday.

“I’m not telling you we won’t do it. I just want to make sure our caucus and committee have an opportunity to weigh everything,” said House Speaker Todd Huston, R-District 37.

Holcomb said that not paying textbook fees and curriculum materials violates the Indiana Constitution.

As for the agreement with the legislator on the details of the proposal.

“I’m not going to pretend to be naive or unaware that we’re picking up where we start and coming together for a long budget session requires that we share details that may not have come up before,” Holcomb said. “This is an excellent opportunity to try to be as convincing as possible month after month.”