INDIANAPOLIS — Republican lawmakers remain resolute on their push for a big expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program in the face of pushback from public school leaders across the state.
The Republican-dominated state Senate has not yet unveiled any revisions to the voucher expansion plan approved in February by the House, and which is projected to boost the program’s cost by nearly 50% over the next two years. More than 100 public school boards have approved resolutions against the expansion, which could consume nearly 40% of the total K-12 state funding increase touted by Republicans.
About the only doubt is how large of an expansion will make it through the Legislature in the coming weeks, despite the complete opposition from Democrats.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville said Republican senators have discussed the potential cost of the voucher expansion but remain firm with the GOP line that “money follows the child” and that the state is funding students, not schools.
“That’s how we’re going to continue to do this because we think that that ability for a parent to choose where his or her daughter or son goes is the best way forward,” Bray said.
Indiana started the program that provides state money to help families pay for private school tuition in 2011. In that time, it has grown from $16 million in payments for about 3,900 students to an estimated $174 million for some 37,000 students this school year.
The House-approved changes raising the family eligibility limits and increasing maximum payments for many families would boost participation by some 12,000 students, or about one-third, over the next two years and increase the cost nearly 50% to an estimated $258 million for the 2022-23 school year.
About 1 million students attend traditional public schools in the state.
Dozens of public and private school leaders and parents were among those who testified Thursday before a Senate committee about the funding plan.
Joseph Miller, principal at St. Adalbert Catholic School in South Bend, said the voucher expansion would allow many students to stay at his school. Miller said 90 percent of the school’s 220 students are Latino from low-income families, with almost all of them using vouchers to pay tuition.
“They chose us because we are safe, academically challenging and caring,” Miller said.
Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson joined other voucher expansion foes who maintain traditional public schools are being shortchanged with only about a 60% share of the state funding boost while educating about 90 percent of Indiana’s students.
“We have seen the state focus more on equality than equity,” Johnson said about Indiana’s student funding formula. “Can we say we are equitable in expanding voucher eligibility … when we know special education students and (English-learning) students’ funding remains stagnant, and we know those students need help?”
The House budget plan would increase the overall base funding for K-12 schools by 1.25% 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 $125 million possibly going to additional voucher costs and $19 million to a new program allowing parents to directly spend state money on their child’s education expenses
The voucher plan approved by the House 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.
Public schools officials also worry that the Republican budget plan will hurt districts with high poverty rates by not increasing the extra per-student funding those districts receive, including for students with disabilities, English language learners and homeless students.
That extra funding has dropped 41 percent over the past five years — from $1,160 per student in 2014 to $693 last year, said David Marcotte, executive director of the Indiana Urban School Association.
“The funding needs to be increased for those high complexity schools so that children of high poverty can get what they need,” he said. “That’s why now is not the time to fund voucher expansion. The state of Indiana just can’t afford it because we can’t even afford appropriate funding for 90% of the students who attend traditional public schools.”
Senate and House negotiators will finalize a new state spending plan after a new tax revenue forecast is released in early April.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston maintains that the turmoil in schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for school choice options.
“I think this is the absolute right time to support parents’ ability to find the right schools for their kids,” Huston said. “I couldn’t imagine a better time to do it than right now.”