Legislators may push voucher expansion

Don’t be surprised if lawmakers try to expand Indiana’s already generous private school voucher program in 2021. They’re signaling their intention with the issues surveys they send to constituents.

At least eight House Republicans include this question in their surveys, which are posted on their internet sites: “Do you support increasing the income eligibility for Indiana’s CHOICE scholarships, giving more low- and middle-income families the option to send their children to the school that best meets their needs?”

Note that the question contains a falsehood. Increasing the income eligibility for vouchers, officially labeled Choice Scholarships, won’t change anything for low-income families. They already meet income qualifications for the program, which provides state funding for private school tuition.

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State officials should act now on school funding

Two days after a high-level commission said Indiana needs to find $600 million a year to boost teacher salaries, legislative leaders sounded a different note. Schools, they said, should be grateful if their funding isn’t cut.

“The way today is playing out, a flatline is a win, even in K-12, when other states are making drastic cuts,” said Sen. Ryan Mishler, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, responding to a state revenue forecast.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of flatline is: “to register on an electronic monitor as having no brain waves or heartbeat.” In other words, to die. The senator’s word choice seemed a bit ominous.

On Thursday, Gov. Eric Holcomb released his “next level” agenda for the 2021 legislative session, and it sounded a bit more hopeful. Holcomb said he wants to give schools all the funding they were promised for the current school year. And he wants to increase funding for teacher salaries.

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Teacher pay issue requires bold action

Indiana’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission offered up 37 ideas for improving teacher pay in a report released Monday. The blockbuster was buried at No. 28, labeled “state revenue increases.”

“For Indiana to become a top-three state for teacher pay in the Midwest,” the commission’s report says, “it will require hundreds of millions of additional dollars to be invested into teacher compensation.”

That means the state legislature will need to take bold action to boost revenue; in other words, raise taxes. The commission provides three suggestions: increase the state income tax rate, ask voters to approve a statewide referendum raising local property taxes or adopt a per-parcel property tax fee.

The alternative, the report makes clear, is for Indiana to continue to rank near the bottom of state — and at the very bottom among adjacent states, well below Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan — for teacher pay and K-12 school funding. And Hoosier children will pay the price.

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‘School choice’ and public schools

Here’s a little secret about school choice in Indiana: Public schools lose more students to other public school districts than to charter schools or private school vouchers.

According to the Indiana Department of Education’s fall 2020 Public School Corporation Transfer Report, 70,394 Hoosier students transferred from one public school district to another this year. That compares with 44,569 who attend charter schools and 35,150 who attend private schools using state-funded tuition vouchers, the options we think of as “school choice.”

Until a few years ago, Indiana didn’t see so many public-school transfers. School district operations were partially funded by local property taxes. Students could transfer from one district to another, but they were expected to pay “transfer tuition” to cover the costs.

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