Indiana Daily Student

Indiana bill that would expand voucher program, reduce public school funding passed through House

Indiana House Bill 1005, authored by Republican State Representative Bob Behning, passed in the Indiana House of Representatives 61-36 and moved to the Indiana Senate Feb. 16. If passed, the bill would create an educational savings account program and extend eligibility to receive vouchers to families who have a household income of $145,000 — about two times Indiana’s median income. Vouchers are state-funded scholarships for students who want to attend private school.

To fund the scholarships, the voucher and educational savings account programs would pull from funds originally dedicated to traditional public schools.

School choice supporters believe that allowing students and their families to select where they attend school at a K-12 level gives them more opportunities and the ability to seek out an education that may address their needs better. Opposers say that while this option can be individually beneficial for some people, school choice policies are leading to the privatization of schooling, which could cause greater educational disparity. 

This disparity would especially harm more at-risk populations, such as Black children or students living below the poverty line, Monroe County Community School Corporation Board President Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer said. 

HB 1005 was introduced following a 2020 report conducted by a state commission, which said an additional annual investment of about $600 million would be needed to make Indiana teacher salaries competitive. Indiana teachers receive one of the lowest salaries in the region and the lowest amount of salary growth in the country.

Fuentes-Rohwer said she is upset Indiana leaders are still considering legislation that would lead to cuts in public education funding after seeing this report. 

About 90% of Indiana children are enrolled in public schools, according to a letter posted by three former Indiana superintendents of public instruction. Fuentes-Rohwer said public education should be a priority in the budget because of the struggles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is clear that this legislature does not prioritize public education,” she said.

Both the establishment of the educational savings account program and enlargement of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, which awards the vouchers, are an expansion of policies that support families being able to select their school. 

Vouchers, or choice scholarships, are awarded to eligible students in public schools who want to transfer to private institutions. Students can receive 90%, 70% or 50% of state tuition support awarded to the public school they were attending based on their household’s annual income. In addition to expanding the eligibility of vouchers to higher-earning families, HB 1005 would also give all eligible students the 90% allotment, eliminating the different levels of vouchers awarded.

The bill would create an educational savings account program that would provide state funding for educational resources to children in military families, students who require special education and foster children who are not enrolled in public school or want to leave a public school.

The choice scholarship program was started in 2011 to help students attending failing schools and low-income students switch to private institutions, according to WFYI. In 2019, the program spent $172.7 million on scholarships for private school enrollment for 36,707 students, of which 57% were white, 22% were Hispanic and 12% were Black.

School choice supporters believe it is a child’s and their parents’ right to select which institutions they attend for K-12th grade.

Lighthouse Christian Academy Principal Joyce Huck said HB 1005 benefits all students, especially those who have disabilities or come from low-income families because it allows them to pick an institution that may be better suited to their needs. About 60% students at LCA, a private school, are in the voucher program, she said.

“I’m in the support of free enterprise,” she said. “It gives people more flexibility to make the educational choices that are right for them.”

Even though parents may get to select which private school to apply to, those schools still select who is granted admission and can continue to study at their facility. LCA requires that its students practice Christianity and live a “Biblical lifestyle” to study at the school, according to its admissions brochure.

Public schools are not allowed to turn away or discriminate against children because of their color, gender, age, ancestry, national origin, religion or disability, according to an Indiana Civil Rights Commission webpage. Sexuality is not listed.

Students with disabilities who are in public special education programs have the right to a free appropriate education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. If a child accepts a scholarship through the educational savings account or a voucher and attends a private institution, they lose the rights guaranteed by state and federal rules, such as the right to not be discriminated against for their religious beliefs, they had at public schools. This is because these private institutions are not regulated by the state, even though they receive government funds through the voucher and educational savings account programs.

Jenny Smithson, Indiana Council of Administrators for Special Education’s governmental affairs co-chair, said these voucher-accepting private schools promise a comparable — if not better — education for students with disabilities. However, in Smithson’s experience, many of these students are expelled because these schools cannot meet the students’ needs, and the children return to public school, she said.

“When they do so, we, of course, pick up the pieces but without the funding,” she said at a virtual Feb. 15 rally against HB 1005. “How much longer will public schools be expected to do more with less?”

Three former superintendents of public instruction, Suellen Reed Goddard, Glenda Ritz and Jennifer McCormick, contributed to a statement opposing the bill.

“The language of HB 1005 gives advantages to families with high incomes and adds disadvantages for our most vulnerable by shifting risks,” the statement reads. “HB 1005, if passed, will defeat the spirit of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act and run counter to the initial rhetoric behind Indiana’s school choice.”

Markay Winston, MCCSC assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said she opposes the bill because it is taking away money from the schools that have to support all students.

“As a public entity, we welcome every student regardless of their background, regardless of their academic need,” she said. “We see it as our obligation, our responsibility and, quite frankly, our privilege, to educate them.”

Another issue with the bill is that the educational savings account program can be difficult to regulate, Fuentes-Rohwer said. The money awarded through educational savings accounts is given to parents to help with educational-related costs, but that definition is flexible and allows for possible misuse of state funds. The allocation of these funds would not be monitored on the same level that funds allocated to public schools are, she said.

“With educational savings accounts, there is no school board, there’s no state board for taxpayer input or complaints,” she said. “How is that financially responsible?”

Although state bills with similar rhetoric have popped up in Indiana since 2017, this one is receiving more attention because it is high on the agenda for creating the budget, Fuentes-Rohwer said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have had to contribute more time and resources to creating both in-person and virtual lessons, and students are suffering from more anxiety and less stable mental health, Fuentes-Rohwer said. Now is not the time to take even more funds away, she said.

“Public schools are trying to do so much,” she said. “Why kick us while we’re down?”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly included a photo of the Harmony School. The Harmony School is not involved with the voucher program.

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