INDIANAPOLIS — Every year when students head back to school, their parents' pocketbooks take a hit.
Along with back-to-school fees, clothes and sports costs, Hoosier families are forced to pony up for the textbooks their students are required to have.
"Several hundred dollars at the beginning of the school year is a lot and the threshold for not having parents have to pay is so low, you have to be on benefits of some kind. And there's a lot of parents that just don't qualify for that, but that $200 to $300 is a huge burden," said Chrissy Smith, a founding member of the IPS Community Coalition.
Smith has a middle and high schooler attending school at IPS. With two kids, she said those fees add up.
"Right around $300," Smith said, estimating the cost her two kids' books cost for the current school year.
And in other districts around the state, those textbook fees can spike up even higher and really impact kids.
“When you add in that extra money on top of someone’s budget, especially when you live paycheck to paycheck like most people do or you have a little bit, that huge chunk, that’s then coming out of the budget for something else. So that means now kids can’t play sports or they can’t be involved in a club because that money is going to something else right now,” Smith said.
Indiana's policy of parents ponying up for books is rare; they're one of just seven states that require it.
And with billions in the bank, for years, Democratic lawmakers have been calling on the state to pay this bill themselves.
"We definitely have the funds to support Hoosier families and put dollars back into the pockets of Hoosiers," said Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-District 46.
Already this session, Hunley is one of a number of lawmakers who has proposed a bill that would eliminate textbook fees by having the state instead cover those costs. As a longtime principal with IPS, Hunley said she's seen firsthand the confusion and heartache this causes parents who can't pay.
“Every single year, I always have families that struggle and aren’t able to pay," Hunley said. "And we know that families who are on TANF or receive other government assistance and receive a fee or reduced price rate. But you also have to apply for that, you have to fill out the paperwork, you have to jump through hoops. And we also know not all Hoosier families qualify for assistance but still need help."
Hunley said it gets to the core of the federal requirement that states provide children with a free and fair public education.
“It is federally regulated that we provide a free and appropriate public education. That’s the way the law is written for every single child. By charging students for textbooks, by charging our families we are not truly providing a free education in Indiana public schools and so we have got to rectify that,” she said.
But 2023 may finally be the year this changes.
Last week, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced plans to give K-12 funding more than a billion-dollar boost, including funds to cover those textbook costs.
Smith said she's hopeful that lawmakers are finally paying attention. For her family and countless others, this small change will make a world of difference.
"Take a little bit of the burden off of families, so we can do what's right for our kids," Smith said.
If lawmakers put this change in the budget, it's expected to cost the state around $160 million a year.