Indiana voucher plan could take 1/3 of school funding boost

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston speaks with reporters on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at the Indiana Government Center in Indianapolis. Huston and other Republican leaders are supporting a proposal moving quickly through the Legislature to shield businesses and others from lawsuits by people blaming them for contracting COVID-19.

INDIANAPOLIS — 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% 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% during the first year and 2.5% 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%, 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.

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% 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.

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