Indiana’s school voucher program got a bit smaller in the 2020-21 school year, according to the annual voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.
The number of students who received vouchers to pay tuition at private K-12 schools dropped by just over 1,000 to 35,698, a 2.75% decrease. The 10-year-old voucher program grew rapidly in its early years, but its growth stalled more recently.
Of course, everything changes with the school year that’s now getting underway. The legislature voted in the spring to expand the voucher program, opening the door to more middle- and upper-income families. Private schools are eagerly promoting the expansion.
Remember when Indiana Republicans said vouchers would let disadvantaged students find alternatives to “failing” public schools? Times sure have changed. Advocates no longer pretend Indiana’s voucher program is about improving education. It’s about funding private religious schools, plain and simple.
For evidence, see this article in Today’s Catholic, a publication of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Joseph Brettnacher, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, explains the benefits of a voucher program expansion that state lawmakers approved this year:
“The most important aspect of the choice expansion is that more families will have the ability to send their children to faith-based schools, where students can develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ within his mystical body, the Church,” Brettnacher says. “Our goals for students are to create disciples of Jesus Christ, help them fulfill their destiny to become saints and reach heaven.”
The two-year budget approved Thursday by the Indiana legislature is unquestionably good news for Hoosier students and teachers. Thanks to a surprisingly positive revenue forecast, lawmakers had $2 billion more to spend than expected. They wisely directed the lion’s share to education.
The budget adds $1 billion for K-12 schools over the next two years. It increases “tuition support,” the state funding that pays for most school operations, by 4.6% in 2021-22 and by 4.3% in 2022-23. It includes $150 million for COVID-19 learning recovery grants and $600 million to bolster a teacher pension fund.
The legislature looked to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission for guidance on raising teacher pay – after largely ignoring the panel’s December 2020 report throughout the session. The report called for raising the starting salary for teachers to at least $40,000 and boosting overall teacher pay until it matches other Midwestern states.
Indiana legislators will have to work hard to find excuses to underfund K-12 schools now that a state revenue forecast showed they will have a lot more money to spend.
The forecast, which dropped Thursday, says the state will take in about $2 billion more than anticipated in the two-year budget cycle that starts in July. That’s enough to make significant investments in education while doing a better job of meeting other state spending needs.
Lawmakers may argue otherwise, but the evidence is overwhelming that Indiana schools are poorly funded – and that the lack of money means Indiana teachers are underpaid compared to their peers.
Ball State economist Michael Hicks has pointed out that Indiana’s per-pupil school spending has declined by 7% since 2010 in real terms. If we had just kept pace with inflation, he wrote, we would have spent an extra $1.3 billion on education last year.
A recent school-funding analysis by the Shanker Institute and the Rutgers Graduate School of Education found that Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for “fiscal effort,” the percentage of its economic capacity that it spends on schools.
A teacher pay commission appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb found that Indiana needs to find $600 million a year in revenue or savings to raise teacher salaries to the same level as surrounding states.
Prior to Thursday’s revenue forecast, the Indiana House and Senate had approved separate versions of the budget that included only minimal increases in K-12 spending. The House budget would direct nearly 40% of the increase to an expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program. The Senate version dialed back the voucher expansion but still committed significant funding to private schools.
The voucher expansion seems certain to happen, despite massive opposition from supporters of public schools. The only questions are how big it will be and how much it will cost.
But overall funding for K-12 education is now an open question. Advocates say the surprise jump in revenue should make this a no-brainer. The Indiana State Teachers Association is calling on budget writers to “go big on K-12 funding and do what’s best for our schools.” Assistant Democratic Senate Leader Eddie Melton said, “We are now within reach of implementing Gov. Holcomb’s teacher pay commission recommendation to put $600 million a year in the school funding formula.”
Republicans, who dominate the legislature, were already starting to drag their feet. They will claim the positive revenue forecast results from their own “fiscal discipline,” but it’s also due to the $1,400 stimulus checks and the additional child tax credits provided by the feds via the American Rescue Plan. And they won’t expect that to last.
Senate President Rod Bray said legislators must “be wary of the day when the economy begins to turn, because we dare not expect this economy to last forever.”
It’s the same old song from Indiana’s Republican politicians: When times are bad, we can’t spend money on schools, because we don’t have it. When times are good, we can’t spend money, because good times won’t last. You would almost think that education isn’t a priority.
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 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.
It’s widely known that private schools that receive state-funded tuition vouchers may discriminate against students and families on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. Shouldn’t that be illegal? A law journal article suggests it may be.
The article, “Covenants to Discriminate,” argues that voucher programs like Indiana’s could be vulnerable to a legal challenge focused on a state’s role in supporting discrimination. Preston Green of the University of Connecticut, Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University Bloomington are authors of the article, published in the New Hampshire Law Review.
Green, the lead author, said supporters promote vouchers to expand opportunities for students and families. But, as the programs expand, state officials often enable them to deny those benefits to entire groups of students.
“Vouchers were sold as program that all could benefit from, but the anti-LGBT provisions give the lie to that statement,” Green said.
Voucher programs come in a variety of forms, but all provide ways for states to provide full or partial tuition funding to private schools for qualifying students. Indiana’s program, established in 2011, serves over 36,000 students in more than 300 private schools, nearly all of them religious schools, at a cost of $172.8 million. Lawmakers want to expand the program and extend it to upper-income families.
Articles by Eckes and Mead, as well as news media reports, have shown that some voucher schools refuse to admit students who are gay or transgender, students with disabilities, and students whose families won’t sign statements that endorse religious dogma. But the Constitution typically doesn’t address discrimination by private parties, such as private schools. A challenge would have to show that “state action” is depriving students of their rights to equal protection or due process of law.
Green, Mead and Eckes examine several theories of state action and identify two that seem promising. One is that states are, in effect, compelling private-school actions that include discriminating against students. The other is that the states enforce practices and policies that include discrimination.
The school funding subcommittee of the state Senate Appropriations Committee will meet Thursday at the Indiana Statehouse. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But this may be the last chance for the public and advocates to weigh in on a planned expansion of Indiana’s school voucher system.
True, it won’t be much of a chance. The subcommittee will meet 15 minutes after the Senate adjourns. No one knows what time that will be. To testify, you have to be there in person. We can watch, but not speak, on the legislature’s streaming site.
It may also be the only time senators actually discuss the plan to dramatically expand the voucher program and create a new education scholarship account program, both of which will significantly boost funding for unregulated private schools. The voucher expansion would extend private school tuition assistance to a family of four that makes up to $145,000. ESA’s would fund private school tuition and other services for students with disabilities, children of military personnel and children in foster care.
The House approved the plan in House Bill 1005 by a vote of 61-38 on Feb. 16. The legislation then went to the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, which hasn’t scheduled it for a hearing. But that doesn’t matter, because House Republican leaders also inserted identical voucher and ESA language in the two-year state budget, where it will get lost amid $36 billion in spending.
Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston explained the rationale for expanding private-school vouchers in a story published by the Associated Press. “The overall policy is money should follow the child, to where that child is being educated,” he said.
So there you have it: the philosophy of universal school vouchers, as outlined nearly 70 years ago by libertarian economic Milton Friedman and advanced by his acolytes ever since.
No concern about accountability, about qualified teachers or a fact-based curriculum, about equity, about the rights of children and families. No audits of how public money is spent. No concept that public funding for education should serve the greater good, not just the self-interest of individuals and families.
Gov. Eric Holcomb made a vague nod in both directions of the school choice divide in his State of the State address Tuesday. As usual, he’s playing his cards close to the vest.
“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it,” he said. “But at the same time, those options shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children.”
Both parts of that statement could use clarification. When the governor says parents “deserve to have options,” it sounds like he might support expanding access to private school vouchers or adding other choice options, which are likely to be debated in the 2021 legislative session.
It’s not clear what he means that “they pay for it,” however. It’s true that parents pay taxes to support schools, but so does everyone else. If he’s talking about parents who pay their own money for private school tuition, they already have that option, regardless of what the state does.
It’s no secret that public education is under attack, in Indiana and in other states. But it’s easy to miss just how radical and well organized the assault is – and how it is part of a longstanding political drive to undermine the very concept of the common good.
Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain in their new book, “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.” They show how free-market ideologues, driven by hostility to government and fueled by deep-pocketed donors, are endangering a cornerstone of American democracy.
“The threat to public education … is grave,” they write. “A radical vision for unmaking the very idea of public schools has moved from the realm of ideological pipe dream to legitimate policy.”
Berkshire, a journalist, and Schneider, an education historian, make their case in a clear, readable style that echoes their casual give-and-take on the education podcast “Have You Heard?” They draw from U.S. education history, studies and policy briefs, and recent news stories to make their case.
“A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” focuses on a fundamental debate on the nature of schools. Education, the authors argue, is best treated as a public good that belongs to everyone.
“Like clean air, a well-educated populace is something with wide-reaching benefits,” Berkshire and Schneider write. “That’s why we treat public education more like a park than a country club. We tax ourselves to pay for it, and we open it to everyone.”