Give Indiana Republican legislators points for resourcefulness. They keep finding new ways to undermine public schools by expanding the state’s school voucher program. The latest, and arguably the most egregious, is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, state-funded accounts to pay for private schooling and other expenses.
Senate Bill 534, scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would create ESAs for the families of special-needs students who choose not to attend public school and don’t receive a private-school voucher.
The state would fund the ESAs with money that would otherwise go to the public schools where the students would be eligible to enroll — typically about $6,000 per student but potentially quite a bit more for some special-needs students. Then the students’ families could decide where to spend the money: private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other services from providers approved by the State Board of Education.
SB 534 would cost the state between $144 million and $206 million a year, according to a fiscal impact statement from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This is at a time when legislators are arguing about whether Indiana can afford $10 million to expand a popular pre-kindergarten program.
Unlike with Indiana’s existing voucher program, there’s no income requirement for qualifying for the proposed Education Savings Accounts. So if Joe Billionaire has a special-needs child and wants to send the child to a private school, we the taxpayers would providing funding.
As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes, the legislation is right out of the late economist Milton Friedman’s plan “to take public schools out of our society and leave education to a marketplace of private schools, all funded by the taxpayers but without government oversight.”
Smith says this would be the biggest expansion of vouchers in Indiana since Gov. Mike Pence broadened the program soon after taking office in 2013. He explains that it would reduce accountability, narrow the curriculum for special-needs students and give perks to wealthy private-school parents – funding for textbooks and computer supplies, for example – that aren’t available to public-school families.
“It’s simply unacceptable and demoralizing to our hard-working public school teachers and administrators,” Smith writes.
The current voucher program provides state funding to private schools that may discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. SB 534, from what I can tell, wouldn’t even prohibit giving state money to schools and educational service providers that discriminate by race or national origin.
Education Savings Accounts come from the playbooks of the American Legislative Exchange Council and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. The programs have been adopted in some form in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Another measure, House Bill 1591, would provide the Education Savings Account option for all students, regardless of whether they qualify for special education. In other words, it’s the Friedman universal voucher program. The price tag for that bill: between $344 million and $366 million.
You’d think cost alone would make Education Savings Accounts a non-starter with a penny-pinching legislature. But the fact that SB 534 is scheduled for a hearing is worrisome. Advocates for public schools can’t let down their guard.