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This article originally published in the Indiana Capital Chronicle.
Top Indiana senators said they aren’t so sure about a House Republican budget plan that would more than double taxpayer spending on the state’s “school choice” voucher program.
House lawmakers on Thursday approved their version of the budget, punting it over to the Senate.
But pushback is already mounting against provisions that seek to generously expand eligibility for the state’s “school choice” program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools.
Republican Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray said that while his chamber is “passionate about school choice, too,” he’s skeptical his caucus will be on board with the House proposal.
“I’m a little hesitant on that,” he said Thursday, pointing to “a big number” price tag to allow a majority of Hoosiers to qualify for the school choice program. “Every year the voucher piece is a big discussion on the budget. We’ll have some other conversations, as well, but that will be a big one.”
He also hinted at support for more voucher school accountability, but spared any specifics.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston remained firm, however, that his caucus has no interest in adopting additional transparency or accountability guardrails.
“The program as it exists has been extraordinarily successful,” Huston said. “We feel very good about where we are … [the Senate] will have different priorities, and we’ll work through those different priorities with them.”
Senate expected to hit the brakes
The new voucher dollars account for roughly a third of the $2 billion in new, additional state funds that House Republicans want to earmark for K-12 education over the biennium.
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said the decision comes as a way to increase “options” for Hoosier parents.
Expanded eligibility for the Choice Scholarship program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools — would raise the income ceiling to 400% of the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program, equal to about $220,000, according to the House budget.
Currently, vouchers are limited to families that make less than 300% of the federal poverty level, meaning a family of four can make up to $154,000 annually.
Bray said he also wasn’t sure the Senate would support the House’s proposed elimination of the eight pathways currently in place — in addition in income requirements — that determine student eligibility for the program.
“When you move it up to 400% of the poverty level, it’s a big number there. And when you get rid of the pathways, that really accentuates that,” Bray said. “We’re going to take a very close look at it.”
Voucher schools receive state funding, too, but are not required to operate within the same parameters as local public schools. For instance, they don’t have elected school boards and don’t have to justify their spending. Critics have long maintained that such schools lack transparency and accountability to the public.
The latest pushback came from a top GOP senator who called for voucher school reforms — not expansion — in the current legislative session.
Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka, said that Senate and House disagreements on voucher spending predated this year’s expansion and senators consistently preferred a smaller amount than their House counterparts.
“That’s something we’ve always negotiated,” Mishler told the Indiana Capital Chronicle Thursday.
When crafting the last state budget, Mishler said his caucus agreed with the House’s voucher request though he personally objected.
In his recent letter urging Hoosier parents to rethink charter schools he called for additional guardrails, pledging not to support “one additional dollar spent” on the voucher program without student protections.
But even though he chairs the Senate’s powerful Appropriations Committee, Mishler said he still abided by the wishes of the overall caucus.
“That’s what people are misinterpreting — I can’t control that,” Mishler said. “I personally am reluctant to support an expansion until I can get some protections… [but] I’m not trying to take down this program, I’m actually trying to strengthen the program.”
Mishler said he was meeting with voucher proponents to discuss future guardrails for voucher schools but specific solutions would come out later.
“Our caucus members just have to ask themselves — they’re spending over half a billion dollars to increase the eligibility. For our members … What do they want to give up to get to that dollar? I think that’s really the overall question,” Mishler said. “But I can’t control what we do. I always go to the caucus.”
House leadership still committed to expansion
After the expansion, the program would cost the state an estimated $500 million in fiscal year 2024, and another $600 million in the following fiscal year. The current state budget appropriates $240 million annually for the Choice Scholarships.
Indiana has about 87,000 private school students, according to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). About 44,000 of those use the state’s Choice Scholarship program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. But under the House GOP plan, the remaining 43,000 would be eligible for the grant, which would average around $7,500 statewide.
Still, about 90% of Hoosier students currently attend a traditional public school.
Huston held that the “hundreds of thousands of kids” that have used Indiana vouchers in the last decade are a testament to the program’s popularity — and a sign that increased eligibility would boost participation even more.
“They’re popular. They’re popular with families,” he said. “We see no reason why we shouldn’t continue to expand.”
Thompson additionally maintained earlier this week that private school tuition vouchers will “save the state money.”
“We’re educating 100,000 students [at voucher schools] for half the cost of those at traditional public schools,” Thompson said, pointing to debt service costs at public schools that “costs the state more money.”
“That’s a great deal for taxpayers, and also just honors a philosophy that I think a lot of us have, that parents should make what they believe is the best choice for their students,” he continued.
The Senate now takes the reins on the budget. But the chamber isn’t likely to unveil its spending plan for another month, closer to the release of the state’s next fiscal forecast.
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