The Indiana legislature is weighing bill to create a universal school choice program

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

Testimony heard in the Senate Education Committee raises questions about how much universal education scholarship accounts would cost and whether the state can afford to fund all students who are eligible. This would be unlike the state’s gift-giving program known as Choice Scholarships.

critic of the invoice doubled down on her concerns that the program expansion would drain additional dollars from already financially strapped public schools.

Law author Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, claimed his law aims to give families more options and ensure students who don’t currently qualify for the program – but want to – can participate.

“ESAs are designed all around to give parents control over their children’s education, giving them more say in the fundamental decisions of how the money is spent and what accountability and transparency are,” Buchanan said. “Any time you can get more choice and more options for parents, I think it’s better, and that’s what this bill is doing.”

The bill awaits committee approval, which could come as early as next week. Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, said several amendments to the measure are likely to be passed before a vote takes place.

Will Indiana take over universal school choice?

Indiana’s Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program was created by the General Assembly in 2021, despite pushing back public education advocates who argue 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. However, the income limit is high. A family of four can earn up to $154,000 annually — which is 300% of the amount it takes for a student to qualify for the federal free or discounted lunch program.

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

Senator Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon. (Photo by the Indiana General Assembly)

Accounts established by the Office of the State Treasurer provide each qualifying student with funds for private school tuition and various other educational services from providers outside their school district.

Buchanan is targeting an increase in ESA grants from 90% to 100% of the per-student funding the state provides to local public schools. This means that, on average, a student is entitled to about $7,500 per academic year.

The previous state budget allocated $10 million per year to the program, enough to fund about 1,300 ESAs. Fiscal year 2023 is the first year the program is enrolling students. The Treasurer’s Office reports that 143 students are enrolled in the program this year.

Buchanan said he “would be pleased” if the budget authors retained ESA funding for the next biennium, noting that the program expansion “is conditional on receiving an item for a budget item in the budget.”

While Buchanan repeatedly tried to focus on that initial $10 million price tag, the program was able to grow slightly.

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

That would equate to more than $300 million annually.

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

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

Buchanan stressed that there are currently fewer than 150 students enrolled in the ESA program. He said there are another 300 families who wish to participate but are not currently eligible.

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“This program only exists if it’s funded from the federal budget that we’re preparing right now,” he said, adding “whether it’s $10 million again or less or more, that’s going to be the ceiling.”

Buchanan said the program will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis if the number of students wanting an ESA exceeds the state cap.

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

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

Changes to high school learning and degrees

Lawmakers also on Wednesday began discussions of a major education bill aimed at “reinventing” the high school curriculum. The House Education Committee listened to testimonies for two hours HB1002a Priority bill for the caucus that aims to expand work-based learning in Indiana’s high schools, such as B. Apprenticeships and internships.

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

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

“Many students are not getting the education and training they need to be successful in our workforce,” he said. “The world is changing at a rapid pace. We need to make sure our students are ready for anything beyond high school — that they have additional avenues to succeed.”

Of paramount importance to the bill is a provision that would establish accounts for students in grades 10 through 12 to pay for vocational training outside of their schools.

The Career Grant Accounts (CSAs) would be similar to Indiana’s ESAs. Students would first have to create a post-secondary plan in order to qualify for the scholarship accounts.

The amount each participating student may receive to pay for education, coursework, or certification would be based on a calculation of the state dollars their school receives. However, students do not qualify for a CSA if they are already enrolled in a career and technical education program.

The IDOE would take on the task of approving the courses and degree programs available to students and setting the grant amount for each course.

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

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

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

The CSAs have been endorsed by business and business leaders from across the state. Many education officials said they agree with the idea, but want more clarity on the tax implications of the bill.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, which opposes the current bill, said it specifically wants lawmakers to ensure public schools play “an important role” in expanding work-based learning.

“We fear that this law will drastically drive further privatization and divert public taxpayers’ money, which will have a significant impact on school funding, how funding goes to schools and how this will affect students in the classroom,” said Jerell Blakeley , Government Director of ISTA , Community, Racial and Social Justice. “Public school educators are uniquely qualified through their educational experience to ensure work-based learning experiences are both substantive and substantive.”

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