Indiana’s private school voucher system was the big winner in the 2023 legislative session, but charter schools came in a close second. They secured sizeable increases in state funding to pay for facilities and transportation, along with – for the first time – a share of local property taxes.
As Amelia Pak-Harvey of Chalkbeat Indiana explains, the success followed an all-out lobbying and PR effort in which charter supporters teamed with voucher proponents. Advocates insist charter schools are public schools, and private schools certainly aren’t. But the joint effort was effective.
The Republican supermajority in the General Assembly rewarded charter schools with:
- An increase to $1,400 from $1,250 per pupil in “charter and innovation network school grants,” intended to make up for the fact that charter schools haven’t been able to levy property taxes.
- A new law that says school districts in four counties, Lake, Marion, St. Joseph and Vanderburgh, must share increases in their local property-tax revenue with charter schools.
- A requirement that districts in the same four counties share with charter schools if their voters pass a referendum to raise property taxes to pay for operating expenses.
- $25 million in fiscal year 2024 for facilities grants for charter schools. That’s in addition to the “charter and innovation school network grants” listed above.
All told, the budget and student funding formula will provide about $671 million in state funds over the next two years for brick-and-mortar charter schools and another $112 million for virtual charter schools. That doesn’t include the local property tax funding that charter schools in four counties will receive.
House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said at the start of the session that expanding school choice would be a priority. Growing the voucher program was on the table from the start, but it wasn’t until the last day of the session that charter school funding bills took their final shape.
As Chalkbeat reported, a $500,000 campaign by charter supporters, including catchy TV and Facebook ads attributed to the Indiana Student Funding Alliance, certainly helped. The Institute for Quality Education, an Indianapolis organization that promotes vouchers and charter schools, helped pay for the ads. Its political action committee, Hoosiers for Quality Education, gave over $1.3 million to Republican campaigns in 2020-22. Another pro-charter group, Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, gave over $1 million. Arguably no other special interest did more to keep the Statehouse in solid GOP control.
Both PACs are largely funded by out-of-state billionaires: the Walton family of Arkansas for Hoosiers for Quality Education and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings for Hoosiers for Great Public Schools.
The Student Funding Alliance campaign initially focused on getting a share of a planned property-tax operating referendum for Indianapolis Public Schools. IPS dropped plans for the referendum, and the call for “parity” in school funding shifted to the legislature, where it had a ready audience.
Charter schools get about the same per-pupil state funding as district schools. They get more federal money. But they haven’t been able to raise money with property taxes. That will now change for charter schools in the four designated counties, and that’s two-thirds of the charters in the state. By my count, 56 of Indiana’s nearly 100 brick-and-mortar charter schools are in Indianapolis (Marion County) and nine are in Lake County.
In almost every other instance, government entities that levy property taxes – school districts, cities, counties, townships, etc. – can be held accountable via elections. If you don’t like how the school district is spending your tax dollars, you can vote out the school board. That won’t be the case with charter schools, which are privately operated nonprofits with appointed boards.
Expanding school choice was a key part of GOP legislators’ education program, but it wasn’t the only part. The supermajority also passed what the ACLU referred to as a “slate of hate”: laws to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, set the stage for banning books and prosecuting school librarians, ban teaching about sex in early grades, and force schools to out trans kids to their parents.
Some folks on the right see waging culture wars and expanding school choice as two sides of the same coin. They believe that, if they can sow distrust of teachers, public schools and public institutions in general, it will boost “education freedom” and their larger libertarian agenda.
But school-choice supporters insist they’re in it for the kids. Advocates for charter schools say they serve more Black and poor students than public school districts (true in Indianapolis but not the rest of the state). If they have qualms about being connected to a culture-wars agenda, I haven’t heard about it.
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