2023 – the year of the general school election

The Indiana General Assembly has an unprecedented opportunity to implement the most promising education reform they have yet attempted: universal school choice.

It’s time Indiana moved beyond the current limited choice program and created a true free market where schools compete for students and parents choose what’s best for their families, with options ranging from home schooling to special education and Vocational training programs reach traditional college prep academies.

This is what Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman urged in 1955 when he wrote The Role of Government in Education. He noted: “The government has adequately funded general citizenship education, but in the course of the process it has also been brought to manage most of the schools that provide such education. But, as we have seen, the management of schools is neither necessary to fund education, nor is it justifiable on its own in a predominantly free-market society.”

Friedman, writing before the modern education reform movement, blamed a lack of consumer choice for underperformance and declining test scores.

A lot has happened since then, including the 1983 release A nation in peril, who bemoaned the state of America’s public schools. In response, federal and state lawmakers have wavered from one reform idea to the next to make the system work, and they have only failed. The trends have been exacerbated by the closure of schools and the shift to distance learning amid the COVID pandemic:

  • Math and language skills scores on the ISTEP and ILEARN assessments have fallen precipitously since 2011, with only 28% of Hoosier students achieving proficiency in both domains.
  • In fourth and eighth grades, Indiana’s math and reading scores on the NAEP test — known as the nation’s report card — have not only fallen over the past year, they’ve fallen from their highs. This is particularly notable given that math and reading have been a particular focus of elementary schools since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, which pushed for performance-based assessments of schools and teachers.
  • Only half of Indiana’s high school juniors were tested as “college-ready” in reading and writing on the 2022 SAT test, and only a third met math readiness standards.

A model law for freedom of education can be found in Arizona, where parents choose between a public school or an education savings account worth about $7,000. Families can use this money for private school tuition, home school curriculum, online academies and micro schools. These are smaller learning communities, often started by parents, and tailored to the specific needs of a student or group of students.

Indiana lawmakers could fund the ESAs with state dollars in the upcoming session, but will ultimately have to deal with the fact that 30% of school funding continues to come from local property taxes ($3.7 billion in 2021). A revision of the funding formula to ensure nationwide equity is warranted. Unlike our current voucher system, education accounts should have few strings attached. A reasonable requirement for a school to qualify for ESA dollars would be proof of core curriculum, a condition similar to that recommended by Friedman in his 1955 essay.

Indiana’s way

Indiana pioneered school choice in the early 1990s, when J. Patrick Rooney of Golden Rule Insurance funded scholarships for low-income Indianapolis children to attend private schools. Rooney died in 2008, but the success of his program prompted lawmakers to launch a variety of ballot initiatives.

Today, 21% of Hoosier students use some form of choice: public charter or magnet schools, home schools, inter-district transfers, and vouchers to fund private tuition for students whose households meet certain income criteria. Beginning this year, Indiana also offers an Education Savings Account program, restricted to students with special needs, that can be used to pay for private school tuition or individual services. Unlike vouchers, which act as scholarships, ESAs allow parents to use allocated government dollars for a variety of educational expenses.

There has never been a better time for educational freedom,” said Robert C. Enlow, President and CEO of EdChoice. Among our current choices, he noted, “Twenty percent take charge. The other 80% are letting society down.”

In fact, according to Gallup, parent satisfaction with their children’s education has dropped from 51% in 2019 to 42% today.

With overwhelming majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate, a mandate from the electorate, and the infrastructure for the ESAs already in place, Republican lawmakers should seize the moment and bring freedom of education to all Hoosier families.