Indiana school vouchers: House proposes, Senate disposes

They say the Senate is the “deliberative body,” as opposed to the impulsive, anything-goes House – and it’s proving true at the Indiana Statehouse, at least where education policy is concerned.

So far, the Senate has held back the wave of support for a nearly universal school voucher system pushed by the Friedman Foundation, Gov. Mike Pence and House leaders. The House passed a bill, HB 1003, that provided multiple add-ons to the state’s already generous voucher program. The Senate Education Committee scaled back the expansion.

As it stands now, HB 1003 would extend vouchers to:

// Students in special education whose families make up to 370 percent of the federal poverty level.
// Siblings of students who are already receiving vouchers.
// Students who live in the attendance area of a school that gets an F on the state’s grading system for one year, or a D for two years, and whose families make up to 277 percent of the poverty level.

The current system, created by a 2011 law, provides state tuition subsidies for students who attend private and religious schools if 1) the students first attended a public school for at least a year, and 2) their family income isn’t more than 277 percent of the poverty level. About 60 percent of Indiana families with children meet that income threshold.

Rep. Robert Behning, who authored HB 1003, wants to extend vouchers further: to special-needs students and children of veterans, military personnel and foster parents, without regard to income. He also wants to give vouchers to all income-eligible students who sign up in kindergarten, with no requirement that they first attend public schools.

That didn’t fly with Sen. Luke Kenley and others on the Senate Education Committee. The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, which also includes Kenley, will consider the bill Tuesday because of its fiscal impact. From there, it will go to the full Senate.

Extending vouchers to students who would otherwise attend F schools makes some sense, if you allow that vouchers make sense at all. The original argument for vouchers – used to justify programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. – was that they would help poor children escape “failing” public schools and get a good education. But it’s a potentially costly idea (See comment below by Libby Cierzniak).

Also, many Hoosiers lack faith in the state’s A-to-F grading system. Data suggest the primary difference between A schools and F schools may be poverty. And as Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education notes, the Senate’s more modest voucher expansion will still cost $22 million next year – including $17 million that would otherwise go to public schools.

Tuesday’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee vote, followed by action in the full Senate, will give voucher opponents more chances to make their case. If the Senate does pass an amended HB 1003, Behning will decide whether to accept the changes or take the bill to a conference committee. He told State Impact Indiana that some provisions in his bill came from Pence – the governor’s campaign “roadmap” called for unlimited vouchers for military families, veterans and adoptive parents. So Pence may have a say on whether to compromise.

But Kenley seems to have taken a stand. Terry Spradlin of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy told School Matters that it seems unlikely Pence and Behning can get the Senate to bend further on vouchers. Whatever comes out of the deliberative body may be what we get.

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5 thoughts on “Indiana school vouchers: House proposes, Senate disposes

  1. Not to be nitpicky, but your article says that the amendment to HB 1003 extends eligibility to students who attend “F” schools. This is not accurate. The bill extends eligiblity to students who are not currently attending public school and who live in the attendance area of an “F” school. Students who attend an “F” school and have a household income that does not exceed 150% of the free/reduced lunch threshold already qualify for vouchers. Because the amendment lifts the requirement that a student in the attendance area of a failing public school must first attend a public school in order to be eligible for a voucher, students who are currently attending private schools would be eligible if they meet the income threshold and live in the attendance area of an “F” school. In 2012, 119 schools in 37 school districts received an “F.” This is why LSA says that the increase in eligible children “is indeterminable, but could be significant.” If the legislature does not provide enough funding in the school funding formula to cover these additional students, funding to every school district in Indiana and every charter school will be reduced on a pro rata basis.

    • Thanks, Libby, that’s not nitpicky at all. At the risk of further confusion, I’ve attempted to fix that error.

  2. I am taxpayer who pays taxes to educate a child in a public school that I don’t even send my child to. I make sacrafices to send my child to a catholic school for a better education than the local public schools can offer. The government gives housing, food, cash, medical, cellphone, internet services and now education benefits. Why would one want to get a job? When everything is free for them. The military families have so many other benefits offered to them. They get an allowance to put their children in extracurricular activities along with other perks, low cost motels, free theme parks, low airfare. Come on, help the average tax paying citizen more than a $1000 private school deduction on the state taxes, which basically gives a $36 refund.

    • “And now education benefits”? Last I checked we’ve had free public education in this state for over 150 years.

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