FILE - Indiana Capitol building

Indiana Capitol building in Indianapolis

(The Center Square) – The Indiana General Assembly passed a bill Thursday to expand the school voucher program to virtually all middle-class families in the state.

The move was hailed by Republicans, who have supermajorities in both chambers, and assailed by Democrats, who were unable to stop it as it sailed through the House and then the Senate tucked inside the budget bill that will fund the state government for the next two years.

“A decade ago, Indiana decided to be a school choice state and we followed that along,” said Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, chairman of the Senate education committee, “We’re never going to agree on the concept, I suppose…but we have done a historic effort here…We fund students and not systems, essentially. That’s what the state decided a decade ago.”

Indiana was called a leader in school choice 10 years ago when it passed one of the strongest school choice laws in the country, introducing the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program – commonly known as the state’s “school voucher program.”

And while the program has grown, from less 4,000 students in the state using a voucher in 2011, the first year of the program, to 35,000 students using one this year, many Indiana families are still unaware of its existence, and unclear about who is eligible.

For most families, to be eligible for a choice scholarship, their child must be transferring from a public school into a private school. But they can also become eligible if their neighborhood public school is F-rated, if a sibling is already getting a choice scholarship, or if their child is a special education student. Foster children are also eligible.

None of these eligibility pathways was changed in this year’s bill, that was originally authored by the chairman of the House education committee, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

What did change is the family income requirement. Under current Indiana law, a family of four can make no more than about $72,000 to qualify for a voucher. Under the new law, a family of four can have a total household income up to about $145,000. A family of three can have an income up to $120,500 and a single-parent, single-child household can have an income up to about $95,700 and still qualify.

The income eligibility is tied to the maximum income to be eligible for the free and reduced lunch program – a family can earn up to 300% of the maximum amount they could make for their children to qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch.

The other major change is in the value of the voucher. Under current law, families that had incomes on the higher end of the eligibility spectrum could get a voucher for 50% of the amount of money per child that their neighborhood public school gets from the state, while families on the lower end got 90%.

Under the new law, all families that are eligible will get a voucher for 90 percent.

Though they lacked the votes to stop it, Democrats in the state legislature complained loudly about the expansion of the voucher program.

“It was sold to me as a program to help poor people who went to F schools,” said Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, “Fast forward to today. A program that started out for the poor and disenfranchised has now risen to the point where you can make $145,000 a year and send your kid to school at a choice school.”

There are now 324 schools in the state participating in the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, according to the state Department of Education. Most of them are Catholic, Lutheran and other Christian schools. But the list also includes two Hebrew academies, an Islamic school and several nonsectarian schools, including Montessori schools and other independent private schools.

The full list of schools participating in the program for the 2021-2022 school year is posted to the website of the Indiana Department of Education.

In addition to expanding the school voucher program, the new law will create an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program for special education students – a completely new concept in Indiana and a new frontier for education that will allow parents to create their child’s own educational program by choosing tutors and classes a la carte from a list of state-approved providers.

The ESAs would have originally been available also to military families and to foster children, but this was changed in the Senate to only apply to families of children with disabilities (special education).

The budget bill containing the school voucher language and ESAs passed the House 96-2 and the Senate 46-3, and is now headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is expected to sign it into law before the end of the month.