- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The 2015 session is likely to be the first of Gov. Mike Pence’s tenure to be punctuated more by talk of spending on schools and education than talk of tax cuts - his bailiwick of the last two years.

The focus on school funding, topped off by an official push from Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, is already evident in a series of contested state legislative races, with attack ads focused on the issue sprouting up in the past two weeks. It’s with good reason: Internal polling from both sides, used to determine messaging, has put education and school funding at the top of concerns for voters.

Cuts to business taxes and the personal income tax are being phased in through 2021 - amid concerns about stability from state budget hawks - and have had only limited impact so far. (The biggest cut approved so far was the elimination of the state’s inheritance tax, a measure sought by legislative Republicans.)

The pinch in schools with layoffs and cuts in services, meanwhile, has been felt throughout the state ever since the property tax cap overhaul in 2008 cut into local education spending and the recession cut into state spending. Elections this past May saw something shocking happen for a fairly conservative state: Voters in nine school districts approved paying more in property taxes to pay for schools.

Denny Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials and an expert on school financing, said that after then-Gov. Mitch Daniels cut $300 million in school funding in 2009, that reduced amount became the new norm for school spending.

“No one liked it, of course, but it was understood because of how bad the recession was hitting us,” Costerison said.

Between 2009 and 2013, the latest year for which total education spending data are available, the total spent across the state dropped from $11.51 billion to $11.49 billion. Lawmakers and Pence restored some school funding in the most recent budget, but not enough to keep pace with the cost of inflation.

According to the most recent information from the National Center for Education Statistics - a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education - Indiana was one of the states that spent the least overall per student. Between fiscal year 2010 and fiscal year 2011, the median amount spent per student dropped sharply, from $9,045 per student to $8,642. (By comparison, Arizona spent $7,968 per student and Alaska spent $25,132 per student.)

The debate in 2015 is likely to focus more on funding for suburban and rural schools, which receive less overall per student than urban school districts that have more low-income families. Costerison said lawmakers might try to find a way to get more money for all schools and give greater increases to the state’s rural and suburban schools.

However, the boundaries will be set by the same forces that have limited school funding so far: Republican leaders’ requirement that $2 billion be kept in cash reserves, an amount that could trigger Daniels’ automatic tax refund, and tax collections that have come in below expectations.

But before lawmakers can get to the debate over school spending, they will have to get through Tuesday’s elections. Democrats and teachers unions, looking to break the Republican supermajority in the House, have been hammering away at education, in particular. Bosma, for his part, helped shore up his caucus with the promise that school funding would be a priority next year.

That’s why the candidates are spending their limited campaign dollars on attack ads about education, and not tax cuts.

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