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Indiana lawmakers are back with an education savings account plan that some advocates have called the “purest form” of school choice

Students using vouchers and from charter schools attended a rally for school choice at the Statehouse in 2015.
Students using vouchers and from charter schools attended a rally for school choice at the Statehouse in 2015.
Scott Elliott

After two quiet attempts last year went nowhere, Indiana lawmakers are back in 2017 pushing for a plan that would allow families direct access to their child’s state education dollars to use for school-related expenses.

The “education savings account” proposal in Senate Bill 534, originally proposed in two bills last year that did not end up getting a hearing, would only apply to families with students who have special needs — a common strategy some states have already used to introduce the controversial programs in their states.

But although the bill wouldn’t apply to all students should it move forward, it represents a larger attempt to further expand school choice programs in Indiana, which already includes charter schools and the ability to use taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition.

Both efforts have grown considerably over the past several years. About 30,000 students use public money to pay private school tuition through the voucher program, and more than 37,000 attended public charter schools.

The savings accounts are also supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, a conservative nonprofit lobbying group that pairs legislators and business owners together to write model legislation. ALEC highlighted the education savings accounts in their yearly conference, held in Indianapolis last summer.

ALEC, strongly opposed by teachers unions and critics of charter schools and vouchers, has considerable influence in Indiana, with several key lawmakers participating in the group and elements of the group’s model laws inspiring some of Indiana’s education reforms in recent years. The group also admires and has sought to promote Indiana’s legislative work on education, even naming its model legislation for school choice programs the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

Supporters of the savings accounts argue they provide more options to families to choose how to best educate their children. But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.

The plan could allow for more state education dollars to be controlled directly by parents than under the voucher or charter school systems. In 2016-17, the base per-student aid each school districts received was $5,088.

That is more, for example, than what families can receive through Indiana’s private school tuition voucher program, where a family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. A family earning up to $89,725 per year is eligible for half the state aid their district would receive.

Families would only be allowed to spend the money from the savings account with a provider that is approved by the Indiana Department of Education, which could include private schools or private tutors but not non-accredited private schools. The money would be handled through the state treasurer.

Expenses could include tuition, purchasing educational materials, tutoring services, transportation, online learning, test fees, advanced course exams or college entrance exams, therapies, computers or devices, and college tuition and textbooks. It could not be used to pay for food or child care.

To be eligible, students would have to be Indiana residents who have been identified as having a disability based on criteria in state or federal law or requires special education services and special education plans.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice.

This would be the second program proposed this year that would aim to give families a way to learn outside traditional public schools. A program known as course access, which would let kids take individual classes through outside providers, was proposed by a House Republican earlier this month.

Molly Deuberry, communications director for the education department, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick is still reviewing the legislation on education savings accounts.

During her campaign, McCormick said she was opposed to strategies that would divert more money from public schools, but it’s not yet clear where she stands on this proposal.

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