Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is proposing Indiana eliminate textbook fees for all students in public and charter K-12 schools as part of his 2023 Next Level agenda.
Indiana is one of seven states that currently allows schools to charge families for textbooks and curriculum materials. For many families, these fines can add up to hundreds of dollars. John Kenny, director of business operations at Monroe County Community School Corporation, told the IDS in an email that parents and families owed a total of $319,000 in textbook fees across the entire K-12 school district based on data from the 2021-22 school year.
In his 2023 state budget agenda released Jan. 9, Holcomb proposed a $1.2 million increase in funding for K-12 schools, some of which —, under his proposal —, would be directed toward Indiana schools to cover the cost of textbook rentals.
House Bill 1123 would require each public and public charter school to provide curricular materials to each student at no cost. Additionally, the state would establish a curricular materials fund to provide state advancements to alleviate costs accumulated by schools providing the curricular materials.
House Bill 1001, which concerns the state budget, would also allow the parent of a student at a nonpublic school who meets financial eligibility requirements to request reimbursement of fees charged for learning materials.
“The Constitution of the State of Indiana guarantees a free and appropriate public education,” Rachel Burke, president of the Indiana Parent Teacher Association, said. “You can’t have that public education without having access to textbooks. That’s just not an idea that makes any sense.”
There has been a push for free textbooks in Indiana for decades, Burke said, but many of the bills died in committee or did not get proper hearings. Now, the initiative is gaining bipartisan support. Indiana Republican leaders at the House and Representatives supported the idea during a Ways and Means Committee Meeting Jan. 12, and Indiana Democrats have long pushed for and authored bills that support free textbooks.
“If we want to be really a state that works, which is the Indiana motto, then we have to support the education to make us a state that works,” Burke said.
While the initiative has garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers have raised questions about the equality of the proposal, particularly about whether Indiana will pay for the textbooks of students who attend private schools. Holcomb’s plan as of now only covers public school students.
Currently, families in Indiana who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches may also qualify for free textbook rentals. However, some families may make just enough money to disqualify them from receiving free or reduced lunches, but still may struggle to pay textbook costs, Burke said. She said others may not even realize they qualify for textbooks or free meals.
Private school and homeschool families qualify for tax deductions in Indiana that allow them to claim up to $1,000 which they can put toward school supplies, including textbooks. Keri Jean Miksza, chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education Monroe County, said ICPE is calling for this deduction to be extended to public school families as well.
Miksza said she supports the governor’s proposal because it would be most ideal for parents to pay nothing at all.
“In reality, what is best is for the state legislators to acknowledge that curriculum is part of a free public education and should be paid for by the state,” Miksza said.
Kyle Coffman, who has three children enrolled in school in Monroe County, said textbook and curriculum fees typically add up to more than $300 dollars per year combined. Learning materials for his fifth-grade daughter, who attends Richland Bean Blossom Community School Corporation, alone totaled around $75-80 this year.
“In an era where we’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s a hefty chunk of change,” Coffman said.
Coffman said his children often use e-books and other technology in the classroom, and he worries the more technology is used, the more he will have to pay. While he understands schools must make money, Coffman said parents should not be charged for an education that is supposed to be free.
With rising inflation costs, bills and everyday expenses, school fees can be hard to swing, Coffman said. If Indiana were to implement free textbooks, he said the extra money could help him purchase groceries and gas.
“All that stuff just kind of piles up,” Coffman said. “You’re trying to just budget everything, and then boom this textbook fee. It’s just an added expense that piles onto the burden that is living.”
Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said the Indiana Department of Education presented their 2023 key priorities for this year’s legislative session Jan. 19 to the Indiana House of Representative’s Ways and Means committee.
“The governor presented his budget which is the kickoff to the discussion, so now we will work closely and collaboratively with General Assembly members in order to make this happen for Hoosier parents and families,” Jenner said.
Jenner said lawmakers will ultimately decide logistics such as whether the money would flow directly to students or parents, but the IDOE is currently aiming for the money to go directly to schools in an equal allotment for each student. IDOE is proposing the change take place as soon as the 2023-24 academic year.
“We have to get any financial barriers out of the way to allow students to really succeed in a K-12 space,” Jenner said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Kyle Coffman’s three children attend Richland Bean Blossom Community School Corporation. Only Coffman’s daughter attends Richland Bean Blossom Community School Corporation.