Governor unclear on school choice

Gov. Eric Holcomb made a vague nod in both directions of the school choice divide in his State of the State address Tuesday. As usual, he’s playing his cards close to the vest.

“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it,” he said. “But at the same time, those options shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children.”

Both parts of that statement could use clarification. When the governor says parents “deserve to have options,” it sounds like he might support expanding access to private school vouchers or adding other choice options, which are likely to be debated in the 2021 legislative session.

It’s not clear what he means that “they pay for it,” however. It’s true that parents pay taxes to support schools, but so does everyone else. If he’s talking about parents who pay their own money for private school tuition, they already have that option, regardless of what the state does.

When Holcomb says that options “shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system,” it sounds like he might oppose expanding school choice – because, where else will the funding come from? Legislators will dedicate a certain amount of money to supporting K-12 education. If more of it goes to private schools via vouchers, that almost certainly means less will go to public schools.

House Republicans have listed House Bill 1005 as one of their top priorities for the session. It would extend state-funded private school vouchers to families that make several times the state’s median household income and create a new K-12 Education Savings Account program for certain students.

The legislation would increase state spending by over $200 million in the next two years, according to an analysis by the Legislative Services Agency. That would eat up most of the K-12 funding increase that Holcomb included in his budget proposal: $150 million in the first year of the budget and an additional $75 million in the second year.

Another House Republican priority is HB 1008, which would provide $150 million for “learning recovery” grants in a program administered by the Indiana Department of Education. The funding could go to schools, districts and other “eligible entities.” An example of the latter is an Indianapolis summer learning initiative announced this week by The Mind Trust and United Way of Central Indiana.

One-time funding for the grants would come from the state budget for the current fiscal year. That would presumably decrease the state surplus available as a starting point for the next two-year budget bill, which could make legislators more cautious about increasing K-12 spending in the future.

Holcomb said in his State of the State address that “we all know there is learning loss to make up, and we will, because we must.” But he didn’t address the issue in his budget proposal.

What is Holcomb’s position on HB 1005 and HB 1008? “The governor is focused on his legislative agenda and will monitor other legislation as it develops,” his spokesperson, Rachel Hoffmeyer, told me.

In other words, stay tuned.

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