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.
According to state estimates, the voucher expansion and education scholarship accounts will cost $144 million over two years, nearly 40% of the funding increase allocated for K-12 schools.
The budget legislation also includes an increase in funding for charter schools, which lawmakers have not debated. It appeared in the budget bill, with no real discussion.
After the House passed HB 1005, supporters of public education got engaged. Activists are speaking out, school boards have approved resolutions against the measure, and organizations of teachers, school boards and administrators have stepped up their lobbying.
It might be difficult for even some conservative legislators to go against their local teachers and school officials and vote for vouchers and education scholarship accounts if it came to an up-or-down vote. But they won’t have to. They will only have to vote for the budget bill. And the legislature’s one constitutional duty this year is to approve a two-year budget to keep government running.
Opponents can propose amendments to the budget to remove the voucher expansion and education scholarship accounts. That would happen near the end of the session in April, as lawmakers rush to meet a self-imposed deadline for adjourning. But it’s likely the only chance we’ll have to get legislators on the record on whether they support local public schools.
This lack of transparency and accountability is deliberate, and it reflects the arrogance of a legislative supermajority that has protected itself with gerrymandered election districts and massive campaign contributions. Regardless of the pros and cons of vouchers, that should outrage us all.