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Indiana plan to create student career scholarships draws questions about funding and flexibility

A student uses a circular saw on a piece of wood during a construction project.

Indiana Republicans want to create new scholarship accounts to help provide students with job training, but some worry the plan could drain money away from high schools’ current career-focused programs.

Hannah Beier for Chalkbeat

Indiana’s 2023 legislative session is under way, and state legislators have introduced more than 100 new education bills and bills impacting schools and students. For the latest Indiana education news, sign up for Chalkbeat Indiana’s free newsletter here.

Indiana lawmakers provided some answers Wednesday about a draft plan supporters say would help more students find career pathways, although concerns remain about how flexible the career-preparation proposal would be for students and the negative impact it might have on schools’ current programs. 

The voucher-like plan, outlined in House Bill 1002, is the result of a recent Republican push that lawmakers say would “reinvent” high school by providing more job training to students in order to address skills gaps and employee shortages. 

The legislation would create career scholarship accounts to pay for students in grades 10-12 to take apprenticeships directly from employers. It would also change graduation requirements, and allow students to use money from a state program that supports free college on job training instead.

During a House Education Committee discussion about the bill, lawmakers and members of the public focused on how much the proposal would cost the state, how it would impact schools’ career and technical education programs, and whether students would be paid for their apprenticeship work or be allowed to change career pathways while using the accounts.

Rep. Chuck Goodrich, the bill’s author, and Rep. Bob Behning, the committee chairman, said there are still details about the accounts that lawmakers have to determine. They also said the Indiana Department of Education and the Governors’ Workforce Cabinet, which would jointly administer the program, would also play a role in how the program would work. 

The bill’s supporters said the exact amount of funding for the career scholarship accounts would be left up to state lawmakers in charge of writing the biennial budget. And the state education department would determine how much students would receive for specific courses or programs. 

However, the career scholarship accounts would not be funded from the tuition support dollars that are the primary source of state funding for traditional public schools, Goodrich said. The state’s education savings accounts, by contrast, provide a portion of those tuition support dollars to families for outside special education services. 

Behning said he hopes between 5,000 and 10,000 students take up the scholarships in the first year of the program. Rep. Ed DeLaney, a Democrat, said that if each student were awarded a $5,000 grant, for example, the state would need up to $50 million annually to cover the cost.

Students could opt to use their scholarship funds at their schools, or at outside employers, for training and apprenticeships that align with their post-graduation plans. Courses and career tracks supported by the scholarships would be first approved by the education department. 

However, schools would lose the career and technical education funding they receive for each student opting for a career scholarship account. Goodrich said this provision would stop schools from being able to “double dip” from state funding.

Some worried that the proposed scholarship accounts would siphon money from career and technical education programs that schools already offer, leading to fewer school offerings for students — especially in small and rural districts. 

John Hurley, a career technical educator at South Spencer High School in Rockport, said his courses generate around $77,000 in funding annually, which often does not fully cover salaries and equipment maintenance. He added that his school already works with community employers to provide career opportunities to students — but that under the bill, he’d have to compete with those same employers for students.

“Smaller school corporations in Indiana work with extremely thin margins to maintain any programs,” Hurley said. “A loss of any funding would begin to weaken a program’s ability to be supported or even exist.”

Behning countered that many established career and technical education centers could become providers and intermediaries under the career scholarship program. He also noted that the proposal would incentivize schools to help students earn professional credentials, because each school would receive a $500 grant for doing so.

Rep. Becky Cash, a Republican, added that not every school district is able to offer every kind of career pathway for interested students. 

“This brings equity and equality to the state in that every student would have an opportunity to participate in something like this,” Cash said. 

DeLaney also asked if the bill provided additional support for schools, since they would be responsible for setting up career fairs and facilitating introductions to employers. Goodrich countered that the bill would actually reduce the pressure on schools, because it would outsource some career counseling and guidance to businesses. 

It’s not clear yet if students would be paid for their on-the-job training or work under the bill. They would not be obligated to work for an employer that provided them training after the students graduate, according to Behning. 

During public testimony, Rachel Burke, president of the Indiana Parent Teacher Association, told lawmakers that parents were frustrated that the legislature wanted to change graduation requirements yet again. 

Indiana adopted its latest graduation model, which allows students to earn diplomas through different pathways, in 2017. It goes into effect for the Class of 2023. 

Democratic Rep. Tonya Pfaff, a math teacher in Vigo County, asked Goodrich if students would be allowed to change career goals under the program. In a school-based career technical education program, she pointed out, students can try one career path and decide it’s not for them. 

Behning and Goodrich replied that they hoped relatively few students would change career pathways because they’d be getting support from employers.. For those who did change their minds, Behning said he hopes some of their skills would be transferable to a new pathway. 

Lawmakers did not amend or vote on HB 1002 Wednesday. The committee will meet again next week.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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