An Indiana Senate committee will consider a proposal this week for a universal private school voucher program that would be open to any elementary or secondary-age student in the state.
The legislation, Senate Bill 305, would accomplish the goal by expanding Indiana’s education scholarship program. The program was created 2021 with little fanfare and was initially limited to students who qualify for special education. SB 305, which would extend it to all students, is on the agenda for a Senate Education and Career Development committee meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Under ESA programs – more commonly called education savings accounts – the state sets up an account for each qualifying student and provides it with funding for private school tuition and other educational expenses. Under SB 305, each student’s account would receive the same per-pupil funding that the state provides to local public schools. On average, that’s about $7,500.
Indiana already has an established voucher program, called the choice scholarship program, that is one of the most generous in the country. A family of five making up to $172,000 can qualify. In practice, most families who meet income limits can participate, but they may have to jump through some hoops.
With the ESA expansion under SB 305, all they would have to do is apply. But there’s currently a limit to how many accounts the state will fund. It depends on how much money the legislature appropriates for the program in the state budget. It’s currently funded at $10 million a year, enough for about 1,300 ESAs.
By contrast, Indiana’s choice scholarship voucher program served over 44,000 students at a cost of $241 million in 2021-22. But don’t be surprised if the budget for the ESA program increases – probably by a lot — in the biennial budget that lawmakers will approve between now and April 30.
I wrote last week for the Indiana Capital Chronicle about why vouchers are bad public policy:
- They waste state funds, because many voucher families could easily afford private school tuition without state help. One in five choice scholarship families makes more than $100,000 a year.
- They hurt public schools by taking away students and state funding. And they hurt communities by undermining the sense of the common purpose that public schools provide.
- They subsidize discrimination. Voucher-funded private schools can discriminate by sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, English learner status, test scores and other factors. From what I can tell, SB 305 wouldn’t prohibit racial discrimination by ESA-funded schools.
- There’s zero accountability for how private schools operate and how they spend their money. They aren’t subject to state audits, and their records and board meetings aren’t open.
- Most importantly, vouchers are bad for children. Studies find that students who receive a voucher and transfer from a public to a private school fall behind their peers in what they learn.
But all that may not matter. Pro-voucher ideologues, including Indianapolis-based EdChoice and Walton family-funded Hoosiers for Quality Education, wield considerable influence at the Statehouse. And Republican legislative leaders have drunk the school choice Kool-Aid.
House Speaker Todd Huston said last week that he “would love to see” Indiana adopt a universal school voucher program. It will take a serious effort by the public to stop it from happening.