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.