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.
Under current law, students can qualify for vouchers if their family income is less than 150% of the threshold for reduced-price school meals. They remain eligible if their family income rises to 200% of the reduced-meal level. For a family of five, that’s $113,516, two times Indiana’s median household income.
In other words, low-income families and many middle-income families already meet the income requirements. According to the 2019-20 Indiana Department of Education voucher report, a quarter of voucher recipients came from families that made over $75,000 and 7% made over $100,000.
The suggestion in the survey that vouchers let families choose schools that meet their children’s “needs” is also questionable. Surveys have found that many voucher parents choose private schools primarily because they provide religious training, not because their children have unique needs. Research has shown that voucher students who leave public schools for private schools typically fall behind academically.
Constituent surveys include at least two types of questions. Lawmakers can ask straightforward questions to gauge what the public thinks: for example, should Indiana legalize marijuana? But the House Republicans’ voucher question appears to be the other type: a question designed to paint a picture of public support for a policy that officials have already decided to advance.
By framing vouchers as something that will “meet the needs” of children from “low-income families,” they are more likely to get positive responses. Don’t be surprised if lawmakers – such as Education Committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, who includes the skewed voucher question in his constituent survey – use the results to claim the public supports expanding vouchers.