Voucher expansion aids the rich

The voucher expansion that Indiana legislators approved last week constitutes a massive handout to religious institutions and a transfer of wealth from everyday Hoosiers to benefit Indiana’s elite.

Lawmakers voted early Friday to raise the income limit for families receiving private-school tuition vouchers from 300% to 400% of the level for receiving reduced-price school meals. For a family of four, that’s $220,000.

The expansion raises the cost to the state of the voucher program to $1.1 billion over the next two years. That’s up from an estimated $300 million that Indiana is spending this year on vouchers.

In fiscal year 2024, state funding for vouchers will increase by 72.3%. That compares with a 5.4% increase in state spending for traditional public schools and a 16.2% increase for charter schools.

Increases in funding in fiscal year 2024 for traditional public schools, charter schools and private school vouchers. Source: HEA 1001 and SEA 391.

State analysts estimate the expansion will grow the voucher program from its current 53,000 students to about 85,000 students next year and 95,000 the following year. The additional 30,000 to 40,000 students will come mostly from families that don’t now qualify. That is, they make more than $165,000 but less than $220,000 for four people.

A voucher is worth what the state would pay for a student to attend a local public school, typically about $7,000. A family with three children in private schools would get about $20,000 a year in state benefits.

In fiscal year 2024, over one-third of the increase in state funding for K-12 schools will go to a voucher expansion that benefits about 3% of the state’s students. We can assume that, if these families want their kids in private schools, they’re already there. The difference is, now the public will pay for it.

The GOP-dominated legislature also removed the “pathways” that students had to follow to qualify for vouchers. That will make it simpler to sign up, but it probably won’t add significantly to the rolls. In practice, if a school wanted a prospective student to receive a voucher, they could make it happen.

Lawmakers justify paying private school tuition for the rich by saying Indiana “funds students, not systems.” That’s nonsense. Since 2011, when the voucher program was created, Indiana has funded three school systems: the public system of “common schools” required by the state constitution; a system of privately operated charter schools; and a system of religious schools that receive vouchers.

The voucher program has grown dramatically, however. When it started, students had to be from low-income families, had to have attended a public school for a year, and were supposed to live in a “failing” school zone. Those requirements fell by the wayside.

And while private schools are being funded more generously, traditional public schools aren’t keeping up. In fiscal year 2025, the second year of the budget cycle, their state funding will increase by only 2.1% on average. Some districts with declining enrollment will lose money.

Who wanted this voucher expansion? Private school operators, of course, and also the “education freedom” ideologues at Indianapolis-based EdChoice and the Institute for Quality Education. The latter’s political action committee gave nearly $1 million to Republican legislative candidates in 2022.

Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of the Institute for Quality Education, told the Indiana Capital Chronicle that advocates had achieved their goal of a “universal” voucher system open to all students. “You’re now really going to see the ability for families to get their students educated in what they think is the best learning environment for them,” she said.

That’s nonsense, too. First, as noted above, the families that will benefit already have the resources to send their children to private schools. Second, low- and middle-income families won’t be able to afford their choice of school even with vouchers; top-rated private schools in Indianapolis charge $25,000 or more, and a voucher would cover less than one-third of that.

Finally, almost all Indiana voucher schools are religious and can turn away students, families and employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They can require families to sign statements of religious faith. Private schools can reject students with disabilities, low test scores, a lack of English proficiency, or because they aren’t a “good fit.”

Even so, research has shown that students fare worse, academically, when they use a voucher to attend a private school. Also, public schools are accountable through school board elections, state regulations and other mechanisms. Charter schools are somewhat accountable. Private schools aren’t at all.

“School choice,” in practice, doesn’t mean students choose schools. It means schools choose students. And we, the public, will pay for it, to the tune of $1.1 billion.

Charter school funding

Legislators also gave charter schools a significant funding boost. Charters get about the same increase as traditional public schools in “tuition support,” the basic state funding for school operations. But the budget also increases the “charter and innovation network school grant” to $1,400 per pupil from its current $1,250. And it includes $25 million for facilities grants to brick-and-mortar charter schools.

That adds up to about a 16% increase in state funding for charter schools in fiscal 2024.

The grants are intended to make up for the fact that charter schools can’t levy local property taxes to pay for buildings and transportation. Going forward, however, some charter schools will get a share of increases in local school property taxes. Under Senate Bill 391, charter schools will share school district operating and safety tax referendum funds in Lake, Marion, St. Joseph and Vanderburgh counties.


4 thoughts on “Voucher expansion aids the rich

  1. Pingback: Session wrap-up: How bad was it for schools and students? | School Matters

  2. Pingback: Charter schools made big gains in legislative session | School Matters

  3. Pingback: Indiana: Charters and Vouchers Score Big $$ in Legislative Session | Diane Ravitch's blog

  4. Pingback: State won’t properly fund education. Voters can. | School Matters

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