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Controversial Indiana School Choice Bills Stir Emotional Debates About State Funding

Lauren Chapman
IPB News

A group of school choice bills are prompting lengthy and emotional debates about school funding at the Indiana Statehouse, with dozens of individuals and organizations testifying on the legislation at committee hearings Wednesday.

The legislation, HB 1005, SB 412, and SB 413, aim to expand school choice options for families in Indiana. The bills would mean increasing income eligibility for school choice vouchers, and create a new funding program for some students not enrolled in public schools to receive state tuition support dollars to pay for education costs.

What People Are Saying

Several individuals and groups testified in support of HB 1005, saying it's critical to give parents flexibility to find and receive better education options for their kids, especially in light of the pandemic. 

This bill increases the income limit for voucher eligibility, and would create the "education scholarship program" to provide state funding to military families, as well as special education and foster kids to spend on education services outside of public school.

House Education Committee Chair Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis) authored HB 1005, and says students enrolled in public schools would not be eligible for the scholarship program to prevent anyone from a "double dip" in state tuition support funding. 

READ MORE: How Do I Follow Indiana's Legislative Session? Here's Your Guide To Demystify The Process

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Maggie Stevens is the president and CEO of Foster Success, a nonprofit supporting kids as they age out of foster care. She says school choice options are helpful to children in the system who face various levels of uncertainty in their home lives.

"They provide educational stability for students during a time that often does not include stability," she said.

Parents and other pro-school choice education policy groups, including Decoding Dyslexia, Institute for Quality Education and Excel in Ed testified in support of the education scholarship program and expansion of school voucher eligibility. The Indiana Nonpublic Education Association and Catholic Conference also support the bill, since it will allow more families to receive state funding to attend nonpublic religious schools. 

But the legislation received mixed reviews from some advocates representing homeschool families and special education students.

Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, questioned whether the benefits of the scholarship program would reach families whose special education children have more severe needs, since nonpublic schools can still deny interested families enrollment. She said the need for special education funding increases in traditional public schools remains critical and unmet. 

Many public education supporters take issue with lawmakers proposing a multi-million dollar program while schools remain short on funding during the pandemic, in addition to their long-standing concerns about school choice expansion. Many also brought up that teachers are still waiting for significant state actionon teacher pay

Opponents like Barr-Reeve Superintendent Travis Madison said it's bad timing when money is tight, and worries schools or programs that receive public funds through a new program or vouchers aren't all subject to the same transparency laws traditional public schools are.

"My concern is there's not a lot of accountability with the schools that are going to be getting that money," he said.

The Indiana School Boards Association shared similar concerns, with ISBA executive director Terry Spradlin urging lawmakers to keep limited public funding in public schools.

“Public funds should fund public schools, which are open to all children without discrimination and which fulfill a state constitutional duty,” he said. 

Several groups and educators testified against the bills in the House and Senate committees, including the Indiana Parent Teacher Association, the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, and Indiana Urban Schools Association. Senate Bill 412, which was also heard in committee Wednesday, creates a similar program to HB 1005 with similar eligibility for families, called "Personalized Education Grants." 

The other bill heard Wednesday, Senate Bill 413, would also expand some school choice eligibility, showing that both chambers have some interest in some form of expansion. That bill also includes a section to prevent penalties from kicking in on the state's school accountability system – commonly referred to as a "hold harmless" measure. 

Opponents to SB 413, including the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, say they like the hold harmless proposal, but the rest of what's in the bill means they'd like to see it defeated.

Senate Education and Career Development Committee Chair Jeff Raatz (R-Centerville) authored SB 413, and said another section that would allow schools to share local property taxes with nearby charter schools will likely be sent to a summer study committee instead.

Bringing Down The Price Tag

A key issue for opponents of the voucher expansion and education scholarship and grant proposals is the cost, as school funding remains limited during the pandemic.

An initial analysis of HB 1005 showed the legislation costing the state more than $200 million additional dollars in the first two years – which would take up a massive chunk of the school funding increase Gov. Eric Holcomb has proposed to kick off the state's budget-writing process.

After the committee approved an amendment, a state fiscal analyst estimated the cost would significantly drop, to about $60 million for the first two years of the program. Behning said that number may go down even more as changes are made to the bill in the coming weeks. 

Lawmakers in the Senate said similarly that they expect to bring down the price tag of SB 412 through amendments as well.

What's Next

The House Education Committee approved its choice bill, House Bill 1005, along party lines. The bill will go next to the House Ways and Means committee, where lawmakers will make more changes to the bill and further examine the cost to the state. 

The Senate Education and Career Development committee will make changes and vote on its legislation, Senate Bills 412 and 413, next week. 

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.