A proposal to expand Indiana’s school voucher program moved to the full Senate on Tuesday, but not before opponents said the unknown costs and impact of the bill amounted to a fiscal cliff for the state and a bailout of private religious schools.
The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee voted 8-4 to advance an amended House Bill 1003 to the Senate after more than two-and-a-half hours of testimony. Several Republican backers acknowledged reservations and problems that will have to be corrected, and at least one said before moving the bill that he reserved the right to vote against the measure in the full Senate.
“I feel like we’re jumping off the fiscal cliff,” said Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, before joining other Democrats who voted against the bill. Skinner was among several who noted the Legislative Services Agency said the cost of the proposed choice scholarship expansion was indeterminable but could be significant.
Skinner said the expansion of vouchers for a few thousand students will come at the expense of more than 1 million public school students. He urged Republicans to look at the lack of reliable cost estimates from a viewpoint of fiscal conservatism.
Before moving HB 1003, the committee passed an amendment authorizing a study committee on vouchers and also increasing the amount of money guaranteed to schools that accept choice scholarships in the next two years. Currently, vouchers provide $4,500 per student, but the bill as amended increases funding by $100 annually for the next two school years.
Critics also derided the A through F school rating system used to identify failing schools where students are eligible for vouchers. That system “does not carry the confidence of the public,” said Vic Smith, a retired educator and public-education advocate.
Estimated costs of the proposed voucher expansion varied wildly, ranging from $7 million to $200 million. Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said moving the bill with so little knowledge of the impact showed “a lack of respect for what Hoosiers want. … I will not continue to take the lack of respect that is going on in this body.”
But voucher advocates said the program expansion will improve schools and educational choice and argued that savings in the expense of educating voucher recipients are reinvested in public education.
Ethan Birch of Fort Wayne testified, even as he is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Birch said his son, Keithan, receives a choice scholarship and is thriving at Lutheran South Unity in Fort Wayne. Birch said he and his son are cancer survivors, and he testified that even though the family has to pay a portion of Keithan’s school bill, vouchers make it possible.
“I still want to provide the very best for my children,” Birch said.
Andrew Hart, head of Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, testified the school boasts remarkable ISTEP scores while more than half of students meet federal poverty standards.
Hart said that the true cost of educating a student at the private school is more than $9,000 per year and that private schools should receive voucher funds closer to their true costs. “Increasing annual voucher amounts by 2 percent is a sure way to freeze out” schools that may wish to offer new educational opportunities, Hart said.
Supporters of public education noted vouchers guarantee money from the public education fund without a separate line item, thereby reducing funding for public schools with each voucher issued. No one knows how many vouchers may be available in future years, or what the impact would be on public school districts.
“Should we possibly just stop a moment to evaluate where we are?” asked Randy Borror, a former lawmaker now with Bose Public Affairs Group who lobbies for Fort Wayne Community Schools, the largest public school district in the state.
Borror said 12 percent of all students receiving vouchers are in the Fort Wayne district, and that 53 percent are from the 10 largest districts. “It’s enormous for those top 10,” he said.
Joel Hand, general counsel and lobbyist for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said vouchers were presented to the public as introducing competition and saving taxpayer dollars. He noted about 60 percent of vouchers are received by Catholic schools, amounting to an annual subsidy of about $22 million.
“Is this really about competition or is this about a bailout for these private, religious schools?” Hand asked. Educators said polls show public support for vouchers in Indiana has slipped.