Indiana lawmakers weigh bill to create universal school choice program

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Legislation addressing “noncompliant prosecutors” who “blanketly” refuse to bring charges for certain crimes is expected to be introduced when lawmakers gather at the Indiana Statehouse next month to begin the 2023 legislative session. (IL file photo)

Indiana lawmakers on Wednesday began a contentious debate over whether it should bring universal school choice — and its daunting potential long-term cost — to Hoosier students and parents.

Testimony heard in the Senate education committee raised questions about how much universal education scholarship accounts would cost and whether the state can afford to fund all students who are eligible to participate. This would be separate from the state’s voucher program, known as Choice Scholarships.

Critics of the bill additionally doubled down on their concerns that the program expansion would pull additional dollars away from already cash-strapped public schools.

Bill author Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, maintained that his bill seeks to give families more options and ensure that students who don’t qualify for the program now — but want to — can participate.

“ESAs are designed all around to put parents in control of their kids’ education, allowing them to have more say in essentially determining how the money is going to be spent and what accountability and transparency will look like,” Buchanan said. “Anytime you can get more choice, more options for parents, I believe it’s better, and that’s what this bill is doing.”

The bill is awaiting committee approval, which could come as early as next week. Senate education committee chairman Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, said several amendments to the measure are likely to be adopted before a vote is held.

Will Indiana adopt universal school choice?

Indiana’s Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program was created by the General Assembly in 2021 despite pushback from public education advocates who argued that the program lacks oversight and takes money away from traditional public schools.

Currently, ESAs are limited to students who qualify for special education. Families must also meet income limits to participate. The income ceiling is high, however. A family of four can make up to $154,000 annually — equal to 300% of the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.

But Buchanan’s bill would extend the program to all students, regardless of a student’s educational needs or their family’s income level.

Accounts set up by the state treasurer’s office provide each qualifying student with funding for private school tuition and various other educational services from providers outside of their school district.

Buchanan is seeking to increase the ESA grants from 90% to 100% of the per-pupil funding that the state provides to local public schools. That means, on average, a student is eligible to receive about $7,500 per academic year.

The previous state budget appropriated $10 million a year for the program, enough to fund about 1,300 ESAs. Fiscal year 2023 is the first year the program enrolled students. The treasurer’s office reports that 143 students are participating in the program this year.

Buchanan said he “would be happy” if budget writers kept the ESA funding the same in the next biennium, noting that the program expansion “is contingent upon getting a line item for a fiscal line item in the budget.”

While Buchanan repeatedly tried to focus on that initial $10 million price tag, the program could easily grow.

For instance, Indiana has about 87,000 private school students, according to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). About 44,000 of those use the state’s Choice Scholarship program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. But the remaining 43,000 would be eligible for the grant, which would average around $7,500 statewide.

That would equal more than $300 million annually.

The voucher program started similarly with a cap of 7,500 students at a cost of $15 million. The cap doubled the next year and now there is no limit and a current annual cost of $240 million.

Homeschool students would also be eligible, along with public school kids. But the latter are already being funded in the state’s K-12 support formula.

Buchanan emphasized that less than 150 students currently participate in the ESA program. He said there are another 300 families who want to take part but aren’t currently eligible.

“This program only exists if it gets funded by the state budget that we’re currently crafting,” he said, adding that “whether it be $10 million again, or less or more than that, that will be the cap.”

Buchanan said the program will be “first come, first served” if the number of students who want an ESA exceeds the state cap.

It is unclear if the voucher program would still exist alongside a universal education savings account program.

It’s also not clear whether the GOP caucus will support a universal school voucher program in the current budget. Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said last week that he “would love to see” Indiana adopt such a program.

Changes to high school learning and degrees

Legislators on Wednesday also began discussions around a key education bill that seeks to “reinvent” high school curriculum. The House education committee heard two hours of testimony on HB 1002, a priority bill for the caucus that seeks to expand work-based learning in Indiana high schools, like apprenticeships and internships.

In addition, the bill would create a framework for students to earn a post-secondary credential before leaving the K-12 system.

Bill author Rep. Chuck Goodrich, R-Noblesville, said his proposal seeks to narrow the “skills gap” between Hoosiers and employers.

“Many students are not receiving the education and training they need to succeed in our workforce,” he said. “The world is changing at a rapid pace. We need to ensure that our students are ready for all that lies beyond high school — that they will have additional pathways to succeed.”

Paramount to the bill is a provision that would establish accounts for students in grades 10-12 to pay for career training outside their schools.

The career scholarship accounts (CSAs) would be similar to Indiana’s ESAs. Students would first be required to create a postsecondary plan in order to qualify for the scholarship accounts.

The amount each participating student can receive to pay for apprenticeships, coursework, or certification would be based on a calculation of the state dollars that their school receives. Students won’t qualify for a CSA if they’re already enrolled in a career and technical education program, though.

The IDOE would be tasked with approving the courses and tracks available to students, as well as determining the grant amount for each course.

GOP lawmakers said their goal is to get 5,000-10,000 students to participate in the next fiscal year.

Other provisions in the bill would require IDOE to put in place new diploma requirements by 2024, and ensure that high schools hold career fairs to help students connect with employers and work-based learning providers.

The bill would also allow students to apply funds from the 21st Century Scholars program — a statewide grant program that supports student enrollment at two- and four-year schools.

The CSAs have so far been met with support from business and economic leaders from across the state. Many education officials said they’re on-board with the idea, but they want more clarity around the bill’s fiscal impact.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, which opposes the current draft of the bill, said they specifically want lawmakers to ensure that public schools “play a major role” in work-based learning expansion.

“We are concerned that this bill drastically creates further privatization and outsources the public tax dollars that will have significant implications on school funding, how funding is streamed to schools and how it will affect students in classrooms,” said Jerell Blakeley, ISTA’s director of government, community, racial and social justice. “Educators in public schools are uniquely qualified, by training experience, to ensure that work-based learning experiences are both substantive and substantial.”

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