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All Indiana students would qualify for voucher-like funds under education proposal

A row of lockers in a high school.
Lauren Chapman
/
IPB News
School choice in Indiana could be remade if proposed legislation gains traction.

School choice in Indiana could be remade if proposed legislation gains traction. Senate Bill 305 would provide more funding with less eligibility restrictions than allowed under the popular private school voucher program.

It’s unclear the total cost of the program or potentially how many families would consider it. Republicans, who control the Statehouse, continue to support expansions of the state’s multiple school choice options.

The bill would expand Indiana’s new Education Scholarship Account Program, or ESA, to any student – as opposed to the program’s original requirement that the only participating children are those with disabilities and meet some income restrictions.

The program, launched last year and capped at $10 million, provides eligible students with 90 percent of the regular funding their district would have received. Last year the average basic grant to traditional public schools was $6,300. There are just 143 students enrolled in the program, according to state officials.

The proposed expansion would allow any K-12 student to receive 100 percent of the basic grant support when leaving public schools and enrolling in qualified private schools eligible to receive the funds. Students can also use the funds for other approved educational services, including therapy, laptops and other special education services.

This would be similar to the state's Choice Scholarship, which allows a portion of the state funding that a public school receives when a student enrolls, instead be redirected towards tuition at a private school the student chooses to attend. But this program requires families to meet income and other eligibility requirements to qualify for a voucher.

READ MORE: Indiana will help families who leave public school pay for special education

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Author Sen. Brian Buchanan (R-Lebanon) said the bill would give parents more options to educate their children.

“This program will only exist if it gets funded by the state budget we are currently crafting,” Buchanan said, responding to testimony about the potential cost.

He said there is a possibility different eligibility requirements would be considered if not enough funding is allocated. Buchanan suggested a $10 million annual cap could be approved again.

Sen. Shelli Yoder (D- Bloomington) said she was concerned because the ESA program is still relatively new for its initial intended special needs group and doesn’t have data to back up its effectiveness.

“We don’t have any strong data points to demonstrate to parents that we stand behind whatever outcomes we’ve seen in the 12 months that we’ve had ESAs,” she said. “I’m just saying that parents deserve to know before we roll out and expand.”

Indiana teacher John Hurley said this program “opens up taxpayer dollars” to things that may not be education related.

“Indiana currently does not fund traditional public school students’ books and personal computers for students in those public schools,” he said. “Why would this program do that for vaguely described participating entities, especially those that do not have to be fully accessible to all students?”

State Treasurer Daniel Elliott, who oversees the program and supports the expansion, said his office makes sure the funds are used appropriately.

“All transactions are reviewed and reported in real-time and we have extensive guardrails in place to protect our tax dollars and to protect our ESA families,” he said.

Elliott also argued this funding is necessary – particularly for those students who may live in areas without necessary education opportunities.

“Indiana’s ESA program is giving educational opportunities to families and children in urban and rural areas,” he said. “And coming from a rural area, and living in rural Indiana my whole life, there are very limited opportunities for rural Indiana when it comes to education choices.”

Other proponents of the bill argued this provides the necessary financial resources for families wanting to choose homeschool education to be able to support themselves.

The Senate Education and Career Development Committee is expected to consider the bill again next week.

Contact reporter Violet at vcomberwilen@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @ComberWilen.

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