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The Indiana Daily Student

city education

School choice bill pushed to next year could reshape Indiana education

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A school choice bill that would provide parents with a voucher payment usable for a range of education services is on hold for next year. If passed, Senate Bill 255 would shift education throughout the state, because it was designed to allow parents the ability to customize their children’s education by choosing a variety of different school programs.

SB 255 would provide students with an undetermined grant amount, likely ranging from $3,000 to $7,000, which they could spend on their choice of private schools, private tutors or other qualified expenses.

School choice bills like SB 255 are being introduced in non-budget years where they can’t be advanced to start a conversation about the issue or to raise awareness about potential changes. SB 255 was put on hold until next year, when lawmakers can address budget-related issues. A similar bill, Senate Bill 143, was referred to the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, where it was not discussed. The bill has no more meetings scheduled this session.

Indiana’s bill would retire the state’s existing Education Scholarship Account program, which provides students with disabilities and their parents with scholarship money that they can use on various approved programs. It would also replace the Career Scholarship Account program, which provided scholarships to students pursuing apprenticeships, work-based learning and similar programs.

RelatedHere’s what to know about the Indiana Senate’s upcoming education legislation It’s a busy legislative session for education, with over 70 education-related bills facing the Indiana General Assembly. Indiana’s short legislative session began Jan. 8, and education is a major priority this legislative session: Both Republicans and Democrats have noted education-based issues like reading proficiency in their 2024 legislative priorities. 

Indiana has an existing program, the Choice Scholarship Program, which provides students with scholarships to help cover tuition at “choice” schools, which are nonpublic. The program was expanded last year, allowing students with a household income under 400% of free or reduced lunch —a $222,000 limit for a family of four — eligibility to participate. The state -approved applications increased by 30% for the 2023-24 school year.

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a contract, or charter, and are designed to add more choices and flexibility to the school choice process. They are well-supported by Indiana’s state government. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which ranks state charter school law by the support the state provides, awarded Indiana first place in 2022. It’s held that position for seven years.

Multiple pieces of Indiana legislation have served to empower and fund charter schools in recent years. A 2023 law changed referendum funding rules to make top charter school districts, such as Marion, Lake and Vanderburgh, share public school referendum funding.

Bills allowing the state to assist parents aiming to enroll their children in charter or private schools have been introduced across the nation, with a mixture of successes and failures.

A Kentucky
bill this session would overrule state court decisions determining public tax dollars must go to public schools, rather than private or charter schools. A Texas
legislature stalemate over a voucher provision in a funding bill last year led to a failure to pass public school funding; the voucher language was eventually stripped from the bill.

On the other hand, Florida
signed an expanded voucher program into law last year. The program made all state-resident students eligible for vouchers of around $8,000 per year, prioritizing rather than restricting applicants based on household income.

However, concerns about SB 255 have arisen from Indiana educators and parents alike. Paul Farmer, Monroe County Education Association president and MCCSC teacher, said he was concerned about the distribution of funding between public and nonpublic schools and other organizations.

“Public schools, and schools and education as a whole, cannot be done like Walmart or Sam’s Club. Just plain old capitalistic forces,” Farmer said. “You can’t do education that way.”

Public school funding in Indiana has been shifting away from local property taxes towards a more state-level approach for decades, according to reporting from Chalkbeat Indiana. As of 2009, the state funded 100% of the cost for the school education fund, apart from local referendums providing property tax funds.

Farmer said he’s worried about low regulation. He believes there’s a possibility parents could receive the money, spend it outside of education, and send their students to public school — potentially affecting class sizes and school resources.

RelatedMonroe County third graders may face retention under new Indiana Senate bill Concerns about third-grade literacy have led to Indiana Senate Bill 1, which would hold back third graders who do not pass literacy assessments or meet a “good cause” exception.  

On the other hand, homeschool parent Kylene Varner doesn’t want the regulation she believes would come with accepting state funds. The bill currently has a requirement that participating students take statewide assessments, and she worries more would come years down the line.

She said she likes the exploration homeschooling provides her kids, and she doesn’t want to be limited in the curriculum she can teach.

“Right now, as a homeschooler, I have the freedom I do because I do not have state funding,” Varner said. “The minute I take that state funding, it will 100% come with regulations. And it should, it's taxpayer funded. The people who receive that money have got to be accountable to the public, and that is good and right.”

An MCCSC spokesperson sent a statement to the IDS regarding school choice legislation.

“MCCSC generally opposes any voucher or school choice expansion without adequate guardrails to ensure transparency, oversight and a uniform application of all other State education codes,” the statement reads.

Ashley Pirani, MCCSC Board of Trustees legislative liaison, said the bill will impact MCCSC schools on top of the effects of last year’s voucher expansion. According to Pirani, 97% of Indiana households who make up to $440,000 per year now qualify for a voucher, and most are predicted to use it to continue private school enrollment.

“If these trends continue, more reliance on referendum dollars will become a reality,” Pirani said in an email. “And when we have to continue to put a referendum on the ballot, we're asking our residents to support us with an increase to their taxes. MCCSC has strived to be fiscally responsible in our referendum asks, and our residents have a long tradition of supporting our public schools, but at what point does our community say no more?”

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