By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
School choice advocates who ended the last legislative session with a bill that created the largest voucher program in the nation have been stymied this session in their efforts to expand the program’s scope.
They’ve gained little traction in their push to eliminate a key element of the current voucher program: The requirement that parents who want taxpayer-funded vouchers for their children’s private school tuition must first try out the public school system.
At least three Republican state lawmakers, including Sen. Doug Eckerty of Yorktown, have offered proposals this session that would have opened up the voucher program to children who are currently enrolled in private or parochial schools.
In varying degrees, their bills would have done away with the current requirement that a child spend at least one year in a public school before becoming eligible the state’s “Choice Scholarship” voucher program.
None has been successful. That’s because some key Republican legislators think it’s too early — and too costly — to make substantial changes to one of the more controversial pieces of the GOP-backed education reform package passed last year.
State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Senate appropriations committee, opposed the proposed change for both fiscal and policy reasons.
Kenley said dropping the one-year requirement would explode the cost of the voucher program. He also said requiring students to attend public school for at least a year before they’d be eligible for a voucher fits with the state’s constitutional obligation to support public schools. “Public schools are the primary source of education in Indiana,” Kenley said. “The voucher program was designed to complement the public school system, not replace it.”
But state Sens. Carlin Yoder of Middlebury, Jean Leising of Oldenburg, and Eckerty believe the one-year requirement is an undue burden on families who have chosen to opt their children out of the public school system. All three authored bills that would have eased or altered that requirement.
Yoder’s bill, for example, would have allowed siblings of students already in the voucher program to be waived from the one-year public school requirement.
“We say that we want to empower parents to get involved in their kids’ lives but we’re not willing to empower them to make decisions about where their kids go to school,” Yoder said.
Yoder said the push to expand the voucher program by eliminating the one-year public school requirement may be over this session, but it won’t go away. “It’s not a dead issue,” he said. “The bottom line is school choice: Why should wealthy families have an option that poor families don’t?”
Indiana’s voucher program provides tuition assistance for low- and moderate-income families who want to send their children to private or parochial schools. This school year, the state is spending $16 million in tuition assistance to pay for about 3,900 students. Next year, the cap on the number of students who can receive a voucher goes up to 15,000.
In 2014, the program’s cap comes off and there’s no limit on the number of students who can participate, if their families are income-eligible.
There’s no way of knowing exactly how much the voucher program will cost the state then. But the Legislative Services Agency, the nonpartisan arm of the Indiana General Assembly, estimates about 26,000 students might receive vouchers at the cost of $115 million to the state each year.
That cost alarms opponents of the voucher program, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, who see it as a means to undermine public school education.
They challenged the voucher law in court, claiming that using public dollars to pay for tuition at private, religious schools violated the state’s constitution.
In January, a state court upheld the voucher law; the court ruled that the public dollars used to pay for the vouchers weren’t going to support religion, but instead were benefiting the parents and children exercising educational choice. Voucher opponents have said they plan to appeal that court ruling.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.