Maybe those phone calls, emails and school board resolutions had an impact. Whatever the cause, the two-year state budget being advanced by the Indiana Senate is somewhat friendlier to public education than the budget approved in February by the House.
Most significantly, the Senate budget would partially roll back the ambitious expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program that was included in the House budget.
Like the House budget, it would create a new K-12 education savings account program, but it would limit participation and costs. Also important: It would remove a House-approved cap on the complexity index, the funding formula feature that favors districts and schools with more disadvantaged students.
The Senate budget, approved Thursday by the Appropriations Committee, would increase annual state spending on K-12 schools by a little over $300 million over two years. That’s slightly more than the House budget but a far cry for the $1.5 billion annual increase needed for Indiana to catch up on teacher pay.
Under the House version of the budget, nearly 40% of increased K-12 funding would go to the new ESA program and to vouchers, which now serve about 3.5% of Hoosier students. Advocates for public schools raised the alarm. More than 170 school boards passed resolutions opposing the voucher expansion. Teachers, school boards and administrators lobbied against it.
The Senate budget would expand vouchers, but not as dramatically. Some voucher students would qualify at up to 225% of income limit for reduced-price school meals: $110,000 for a family of four. Higher-income voucher students would get increased state support. (Chalkbeat Indiana has the details).
It’s remarkable that the Senate budget, with an expansion of vouchers and only a modest increase in K-12 funding, could almost come as good news. But the House voucher expansion and ESA program were so egregious that the Senate plan seems mild by comparison.
The next step is for the full Senate to approve the budget. Then a conference committee will resolve differences between the House and Senate versions, on education and other spending. Where they end up is anyone’s guess. At the beginning of the session, leaders of the House and Senate seemed aligned on their pro-voucher rhetoric: Both sides called for “expanding choice” and “funding students, not systems.” The Senate now seems to have walked that back somewhat.
Meanwhile, supporters of public schools will and should continue to speak out against expanding vouchers. The fact that about 60% of Indiana school boards – not typically a partisan group – approved resolutions appealing to their legislators may be unprecedented. If the advocacy so far has had an effect, maybe legislators can be persuaded to shelve this ill-advised voucher expansion plan.