The school funding subcommittee of the state Senate Appropriations Committee will meet Thursday at the Indiana Statehouse. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But this may be the last chance for the public and advocates to weigh in on a planned expansion of Indiana’s school voucher system.
True, it won’t be much of a chance. The subcommittee will meet 15 minutes after the Senate adjourns. No one knows what time that will be. To testify, you have to be there in person. We can watch, but not speak, on the legislature’s streaming site.
It may also be the only time senators actually discuss the plan to dramatically expand the voucher program and create a new education scholarship account program, both of which will significantly boost funding for unregulated private schools. The voucher expansion would extend private school tuition assistance to a family of four that makes up to $145,000. ESA’s would fund private school tuition and other services for students with disabilities, children of military personnel and children in foster care.
The House approved the plan in House Bill 1005 by a vote of 61-38 on Feb. 16. The legislation then went to the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, which hasn’t scheduled it for a hearing. But that doesn’t matter, because House Republican leaders also inserted identical voucher and ESA language in the two-year state budget, where it will get lost amid $36 billion in spending.
Indiana’s private school voucher program launched in 2011 with a promise that it would help students from low-income families transfer out of low-performing public schools. The implication was that many of those students would be students of color.
But the program has evolved, becoming more of a state subsidy for parent choice and religious education. And, in some urban districts, Black students are significantly less likely to take part in the program than white students, according to Indiana Department of Education data.
Statewide, students receiving state-funded tuition vouchers are less likely to be white and more likely to be Hispanic than Indiana’s overall public-school enrollment. The percentage of Black students is about the same, just over 11%. (That’s a change; in the program’s early years, 30% of voucher students were Black).
Students who use Indiana’s public school choice option to switch to a different school district are more likely than their peers to be white and less likely to be from low-income families, according to school transfer data from the Indiana Department of Education.
In many cases, the students are transferring from racially diverse districts to districts that are mostly white and less poor. The data suggest that public school choice, regardless of its intentions, has contributed to students being more segregated in schools by race, ethnicity and family income.
For example, 90% students who transfer out of Anderson Community Schools are white, compared to the 53% of students attending schools in the district. Most Anderson students transfer to nearby Frankton-Lapel, Alexandria and South Madison districts, where 90% of students are white.
A new Indiana school that combines virtual education and elements of homeschooling is prompting questions about the limits of school choice and how the state will enforce K-12 regulations at a time when more parents are opting for online learning.
The school, Tech Trep Academy, is operated by a Utah company under contract with Cloverdale Community Schools. It opened in the fall of 2020 and enrolls 175 students.
Critics have focused on two issues: whether the school complies with state law that requires five or six hours of daily instruction, and whether it is appropriate to use state funds to buy “supplemental” learning materials for students, including computers and Disney Plus memberships.
Tech Trep director and marketing specialist Janet Cox said the school provides “the best of both worlds,” combining the close parent involvement of homeschooling with the structure and funding of a public school.
They say legislators are supposed to represent the people who elect them, but what, exactly, does that mean? Do they represent the people who voted for them? The people who live in their districts?
Or do they look out for the businesses and organizations that made their election possible through campaign contributions? Judging by the actions of the Indiana General Assembly, it may be the latter.