FILE — School Buses

(The Center Square) – A bill before the Indiana legislature would dramatically expand the state’s school voucher program, opening it up to most middle and upper-middle-class Indiana families who could use the voucher to pay for tuition at a private school.

The bill proposes, beginning in 2022, families having an income up to 225% of the maximum income to qualify for free or reduced lunch would qualify for a school voucher for 90% of the amount the state would normally pay to fund that child’s education in the traditional public school.

The following year, a family with an income of up to 300% of the maximum income for free or reduced lunch would be eligible, meaning that a single-parent, single-child household with an income up to $95,682 would qualify, according to the current wording of the bill, as would a family of three with an income up to $120,546 and a family of four with income up to $145,410.

By comparison, in the current school year, a family of four could have an income of no higher than $72,705 to qualify for the voucher program, and if near this maximum income, would get only a partial voucher, significantly less than 90% of the state per-child funding, in most cases.

The bill -- HB 1005 -- was authored by the chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. It was voted out of committee and sent to the Ways and Means Committee and is expected to be taken up by the full House in the coming weeks.

There are currently 35,122 students in Indiana’s school voucher program, officially called the Indiana School Choice Scholarship Program.

To qualify, most students have to first spend a year at a public school, and can then transfer to a private school using a voucher.

However, special education students, siblings of students already in the voucher program and students whose neighborhood school is “F” rated are exempt from having to first spend two semesters in a public school.

There are 324 schools in the state currently participating in the program and accepting vouchers, according to the Indiana Department of Education. Most of them are Catholic, Lutheran and other Christian schools. But the list also includes at least two Hebrew academies, an Islamic school and several nonsectarian private schools, including Montessori schools and other independent private schools.

In addition to expanding the school voucher program, HB 1005 would also create an Education Scholarship Account program for special education, military and foster families.

At the hearing on the bill, Behning referred to Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) as tools to empower families.

“It is an opportunity for parents to be the authorities that kind of exercise accountability, as opposed to the state,” he told the committee members.

Parents would use an online portal to set up an ESA for their child. Up to 90% of the money the state would ordinarily give the public school for that child’s education would be transferred to the ESA and parents would be able to choose educational services from among approved providers to put together a customized educational program.

This could include a foreign language class at the child’s neighborhood school, said Behning, as well as individual classes at a private school and also private tutoring or therapy. Expenses related to homeschooling, such as the purchase of a curriculum, would also be eligible.

“It’s going to take a very engaged parents to use an ESA,” said Behning, adding that numerous parents of special needs children have told him that they are up to the task.

But if they find they’re not, or that it’s not working, they’re not stuck.

“If you were to choose to take an ESA at the beginning of the school year and find that that didn’t meet the needs or for some reason you did not have satisfaction, you can go back to your homeschool district and register your student,” he explained to the committee. “What would happen in that case is all the funds in the ESA would roll over to the school, for use educating your child.”

The state legislature estimates that if HB 1005 were to pass, another 33,000 to 38,000 would eventually leave Indiana public schools and either set up an ESA or use a voucher to attend a private school.

In introducing the bill, Behning emphasized the need to better serve special needs families in the state, and referred to a letter the state recently received from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, saying that the state is being investigated for a failure to provide a “free and appropriate education” to special needs students during the pandemic.

He also cited low reading and math test scores for special education students: Only 15.7% are proficient at reading and only 18.6% are proficient at math – far below the general population of students.

“Almost across the board, if you look at special ed proficiency, it is at least in general 66% below that of the general population,” said Behning. “And although all of these students come to us with special needs, which would obviously make it more difficult, the goal of the General Assembly, historically in terms of having those resources available and in this bill would be to try to improve that proficiency so students have greater success in academics as well as life.”

Dozens of people came to the Statehouse on Wednesday afternoon and stayed into the evening to testify on the bill, including several parents who thanked the committee for working to expand the ability of parents to direct the education of their children and several representatives of organizations that support children and families, including private schools.

Dan Thompson, the director of business operations for Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, told the committee that 30% of the 672 students at Bishop Chatard have vouchers, and if HB 1005 passed and were signed into law, an additional 38 students would qualify for vouchers in 2022 and another 18 in 2023.

“I am humbled by the families that choose to send their kids to Chatard,” he said, referring to “difficult conversations” he has with families about the cost of tuition and how to afford it. The school has a “very unique socio-economic mix” he said, with many affluent students but also many students from families that have financial struggles.

“One cannot help but appreciate the enormity of what these choice scholarships represent to them…We want to continue to help them,” he said.

Molly Collins, representing the Institute for Quality Education, also testified in support of the bill, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way parents in Indiana see education.

“Over the last year, parents have become more engaged in their child’s education than ever before,” she said. “And the result of this engagement is clear: They want more options. From the lack of in-person learning to the inability to receive critical learning accommodations and aid for children with special needs, this past year has highlighted the need for more educational options for more Hoosier families.”

Several teachers and professional education associations testified in opposition to the bill.

“Should this bill pass, it would divert public funds from our traditional public schools while they continue to navigate the demands of the ongoing pandemic, work to mitigate lost learning and attempt to provide crucial services for many of our neediest students,” said Kristien Hamilton, a seventh-grade math teacher and local teachers union representative from Greencastle. She said the HB 1005 would “incentivize” families to “abandon public schools.”

“I don’t think this bill really is about school choice. This bill is about school shopping. And there’s a big difference,” said Robert Taylor, representing the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.

The bill is expected to be voted on by the full House of Representatives in the coming weeks, and to then go to the Senate for consideration.

Senator Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, also has a bill to expand the school voucher program, though with the focus on opening it up to all foster children and awarding 90% of state tuition support to all those who qualify, while keeping the lower maximum household income amounts.

He noted this week that Indiana is already a “national leader in school choice” and said that’s a reputation he’d like to help advance in this session.