Session wrap-up: How bad was it for schools and students?

Expanding the voucher program and banning gender-affirming care for minors were the most egregious education-related actions that the Indiana General Assembly took in the session that just concluded. But they are far from the only damage lawmakers did.

Book banning. Legislators teased the idea of banning books and criminalizing librarians all session, then finally put the language in a House-Senate conference committee report and passed it on the last day. House Bill 1447 requires schools to publish lists of all the books and materials in their libraries and create a procedure to challenge books as obscene or harmful to minors. Making obscene or harmful materials available to minors is a felony, and the bill repeals a provision that lets school librarians defend themselves by arguing the books are educational or they’re acting in the capacity of their employment. It was approved 69-28 by the House and 39-10 by the Senate on the last day of the session.

Indiana Statehouse dome

Outing trans kids. HB 1608 requires schools to notify a parent within five days if their child asks to be called by a different name or gender. Critics said the requirement could harm children whose parents aren’t supportive of their gender identity. The bill also bans instruction in “human sexuality” for students in preschool through grade 3. The provisions apply to public and charter schools but not to private schools, including those that receive state-funded vouchers. The House voted 63-29 to approve the bill, and the Senate voted 37-12 to concur with changes made by the House.

Union busting. Senate Bill 486, promoted as a “deregulation” measure, repeals a requirement that school boards and administrators discuss certain issues, such as curriculum, discipline and class size, with local teachers’ unions. It’s one more step in a long-running campaign by the Republican supermajority to sideline unions, which tend to support Democrats. The bill also eliminates some teacher training requirements and school regulations. The House approved it, 63-36. After several delays, the Senate narrowly signed off on changes made by the House, 27-23.

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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.

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Issues abound in session’s final week

The 2023 session of the Indiana General Assembly is coming down to the wire. The deadline for lawmakers to finish their work is Saturday. Several questions affecting schools are still unanswered.

Indiana Statehouse

What will school funding look like? A state revenue forecast suggested legislators have an extra $1.5 billion to work with, so they could decide to be more generous. Will they dedicate more funding to education (and other state needs like mental health), or will they shift their attention to cutting taxes? If they provide more for schools, how will they divide it among public, charter and private schools?

Will they expand private school vouchers? The House budget bill expanded program eligibility to 400% of the cutoff for reduced-price school meals; that is, to $220,000 for a four-person household. The proposal would have soaked up over one-third of the House’s K-12 funding increase. The Senate kept voucher eligibility where it is. The revenue forecast could add pressure to expand the program.

What about charter schools? The House and Senate budgets would both change funding for charter schools, but they take a different approach. The House would increase state funding for charters while also taking steps to equalize local property taxes for school districts. The Senate would give charter schools a share of future increases in local property taxes for schools.

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Senate pares back voucher expansion

Hoosiers learn to be grateful for small favors when the legislature is in session. Take, for example, the budget the Indiana Senate is about to approve. When it comes to education, it could be worse.

Indiana Senate chamber

For one thing, the Senate would dial back the expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program that was part of the House version of the budget. The House would raise eligibility for the program to 400% of the income cutoff for reduced-price school meals. That’s over seven times the federal poverty level, or about $220,000 for a four-person household next year.

The Senate budget leaves the income cap where it is: 300% of the reduced-price meal level, or about $166,000 for four people. That’s still two and a half times the state’s median household income.

House Republicans boasted that their budget would provide record funding increases for K-12 education, but over one-third of the increase would go to private schools via vouchers. The Senate would leave the voucher program alone, but the already generous program is still likely to grow even larger.  According to a Legislative Services Agency fiscal analysis, nearly 15% of the increase in state funding for K-12 schools – more than $116 million over two years – would go to private schools, which enroll about 7% of Indiana students.

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Vouchers would get outsized share of funding increase

Indiana House Republicans are bragging that their proposed state budget will make record investments in education, including an 8.5% increase in K-12 funding next year. That’s not false, but it’s misleading.

A huge chunk of that increase would go to private schools under a vastly expanded voucher program, not to the public schools that most Hoosier students attend.

Indiana Statehouse

The budget would boost state funding for K-12 schools by $697 million next year, an 8.5% increase from what the state is spending this year. But it’s estimated that about $260 million of next year’s increase would go to growing the voucher program, according to the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

In other words, 37% of the new money for education would go to vouchers that pay tuition for private schools, which enroll just over 7% of Indiana K-12 students. That’s hardly equitable.

The budget appropriation for base school funding, which accounts for 80% of state funding for public schools, would increase by only 4% next year and 0.7% the following year, House Republicans admit. That’s nowhere close to the current or expected rate of inflation.

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Pence’s education legacy

Mike Pence’s new book is called “So Help Me God,” so everything in it must be God’s truth, right? I won’t try to fact-check all 560 pages, but Pence’s claims about his education record as Indiana governor should get attention. And that part is mostly true.

He does bend the truth, however, with this statement: “All told during my term, Indiana had the single largest budget increase in K 12 education in its history.”

Cover of 'So Help Me God' with photo of Mike Pence.

Pence made the same claim in 2016 when he was introduced as Donald Trump’s running mate., a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Institute, investigated and termed it misleading. It’s true that there were modest increases in state K-12 funding each year Pence was governor, FactCheck’s Lori Robertson notes; but, in constant dollars, those weren’t the biggest in history.

She consulted with Larry DeBoer, a Purdue economist and an expert on school and government finance in Indiana, who showed that, adjusted for inflation, Indiana’s K-12 budget peaked before Pence took office. “In real terms, and as a share of Indiana’s economy, education spending is a bit smaller than it was in 2010 and 2011,” DeBoer said at the conclusion of Pence’s term.

FactCheck was harsher with Hillary Clinton’s claim that Pence “slashed” education funding in Indiana, labeling it false. It did note that, under Pence, Indiana shifted funding to growing suburban districts; Indianapolis Public Schools lost $17 million as a result.

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School vouchers and ‘learning loss’

Pundits have been wringing their hands over the “learning loss” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the largest decline in decades.

But if people care about what kids are and aren’t learning, they should be every bit as alarmed by the private school voucher programs that are spreading across the country.

That’s according to Joshua Cowen, a Michigan State University education policy professor. He’s been studying vouchers and following the research for two decades, and he says the evidence is crystal clear that voucher programs don’t work when it comes to helping students learn.

In a recent episode of “Have You Heard,” an education podcast, he said thorough evaluations of large-scale voucher programs – in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. – found overwhelmingly negative effects on learning as measured by test scores.

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Vouchers prop up private schools

I’ve always thought that one of the motivations behind Indiana’s school voucher program was to create a taxpayer bailout for private schools, especially struggling Catholic schools. If that’s the case, it seems to have worked.

Enrollment for the state’s Catholic schools has held steady for the past 10 years, roughly the period that vouchers have been in place. Overall enrollment in accredited private schools has increased by 16%.

Contrast that with what’s happened elsewhere. Across the United States, enrollment in Catholic K-12 schools declined by 21.3% in the past 10 years, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic school enrollment peaked in the early 1960s at 5.2 million; it’s now about 1.7 million.

A recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows how this trend continues in St. Louis, where Catholic school enrollment has shrunk by half since 2000. The local archdiocese is embarking on a plan to close and consolidate schools, but that will be tricky, according to a community survey.

In Indiana, vouchers also cushioned the blow to private schools from the growth of charter schools. Indiana started charter schools in 2002 and greatly expanded them in 2011. They have grown explosively, especially in Indianapolis and Gary.

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Indiana voucher cost nears quarter billion dollars

Indiana awarded $241.4 million in the 2021-22 school year to pay tuition and fees for students to attend private schools. That’s 44% more than the state spent on vouchers the previous year.

The increase, detailed in a Department of Education report, isn’t surprising. The Indiana General Assembly in 2021 vastly expanded the voucher program, opening it to families near the top of the state’s income scale and making the vouchers significantly more generous.

Cover of 2021-22 Indiana voucher report.

Nearly all the 330 private schools that received voucher funding are religious schools. Some discriminate against students, families and employees because of their religion, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Indiana is bankrolling bigotry.

And many of the families receiving vouchers could pay private school tuition without public assistance. Some 20% of voucher households last year had an income of $100,000 or more, well above Indiana’s median household income of about $58,000.

The voucher program, created in 2011, was sold as a way to help children from poor families opt out of “failing” public schools. Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s governor at the time and a leading voucher advocate, said students should attend a public school for two semesters to qualify, giving public schools a chance to show what they could do.

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