TOM DAVIES and CASEY SMITH - Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — More than one-third of the proposed state funding hike for Indiana schools could go toward the state’s private school voucher program under a Republican-backed plan that could boost the program’s cost by nearly 50 percent over the next two years.
The estimated $144 million cost for the voucher expansion and a new program allowing parents to directly spend state money on their child’s education expenses is included in legislative budget projections — but is more than double what House Republicans discussed in releasing their state budget plan last week.
Republicans tout their proposal as giving parents more choices over how to educate their children, while Democrats and other opponents argue that it further drains funding from traditional school districts while they are struggling to find ways to boost the state’s lagging teacher pay.
Overall, House Republicans propose increasing the base funding for K-12 schools by 1.25 percent during the first year and 2.5 percent in the second year of the new budget that would start in July. That would mean about $378 million more for total school funding over the two years — with about $200 million going to traditional public schools that have about 1 million students.
"Lawmakers are prioritizing expanding school choice that benefits a small percentage of students in Indiana, and it's at the detriment of adequate funding for public education,” said Terry Spradlin, the Indiana School Boards Association's executive director.
Three former state education superintendents have additionally spoken out against expansion plans which they say divert “adequate and equitable funding" away from public schools and open the door to “unacceptable practices.”
The private school voucher changes approved by the House this week would raise income eligibility for a family of four from the current roughly $96,000 a year to about $145,000 in 2022. It also would allow all those students to receive the full voucher amount, rather than the current tiered system that limits full vouchers to such families with incomes of about $48,000.
Those changes are projected to boost voucher program participation by some 12,000 students, or 34 percent, over the next two years after the enrollment has remained steady around 35,000 the past four years, according to state education department reports. The program’s cost would go from about $174 million this school year to $256 million in two years.
The Republican mantra has been that “money follows the child” and that the state should “fund students, not school systems.”
“The one thing that we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents and many others is that families need choices, the pandemic has highlighted that, to find the right place for their kids to have the best academic experience and that’s what this budget focuses on,” Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said.
The voucher expansion isn't likely to induce a “mass exodus” of students from public schools, said Betsy Wiley, president of Institute for Quality Education, an advocacy group that backs Indiana’s charter school and private school voucher programs. But after five to 10 years of voucher expansion, Wiley's confident that “increasing numbers of Hoosier families, currently trapped in an educational model that isn’t ideal for their children,” will use the opportunity to move schools.
Republicans also propose creating a new program they’ve dubbed education savings accounts providing grants to parents of children with special needs to spend on their education. Students in foster care, as well as some whose parents are serving in the military or are veterans, would also for the stipends.
Parents could choose to use the money to pay for tuition, or for other education expenses like tutoring, therapy or technological devices. That program could cost $19 million for some 3,200 students.
Another change backed by House Republicans would remove the current per-pupil funding cap for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85 percent of full in-person student funding. That cap was instituted under reasoning that all-virtual education costs less without the expenses such as school buildings, but the proposed budget would give virtual students full funding at an annual estimated cost of $14.5 million.
“We want the dollars to follow the child to where the parents have chosen to enroll their children, and that’s in public education,” Spradlin said. “This is not what the governor called for, and it certainly won’t help us maintain forward momentum and progress on teacher pay.”
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb hasn’t fully embraced the voucher program expansion. In his State of the State speech last month, he said more school options “shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90 percent of Hoosier children.”
Holcomb said Wednesday he supported school choice options and suggested a voucher expansion could happen as part of an overall school funding increase.
“We can do a couple things at the same time and meet parents where their demand is,” Holcomb said.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.