School Choice

Ritz: Indiana shouldn't expand its voucher program

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz talks with reporters following an Indiana State Board of Education meeting in February.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz made it clear today that she won’t support legislative efforts to expand taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.

In an update to her legislative priorities, Ritz said she is opposed to measures that would make it easier for families to use vouchers to transfer schools in the middle of the year, even if they’ve already used a voucher that year at another school.

Ritz has no plans to go after the state’s existing voucher program, she said, but cautioned against efforts to relax its rules.

“We already have school choice in place, so those (existing vouchers) would remain to be in place as they are,” Ritz said. “What I’m really talking about is let’s not expand how you get school choice.”

Ritz is referring, in part, to an idea in Senate Bill 334, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, that would allow schools to accept voucher students for the spring semester as late as Jan. 15 — four months after the current Sept. 1 deadline.

The bill would eliminate provisions in state law that limit students to just one voucher per school year and would do away with current rules requiring students who leave a private school before the year ends to pay back the rest of that year’s tuition. House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he plans to hear the bill, a signal it could have support among House lawmakers.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill last month, Yoder said he proposed the bill, which passed the Senate last week 40-9, for programs similar to ones at The Crossing, a network of private religious alternative schools that serve about 2,500 Indiana students.

The network includes 28 accredited private Christian schools spread throughout Indiana that cater specifically to students who struggled at other schools, were expelled or dropped out.

Yoder’s bill, however, would apply to any eligible student who wants to transfer to an eligible private school, not just those who are struggling and want to switch to a school in The Crossing network.

Curt Merlau, who helps lead community and school development for the network in central Indiana, said at the hearing that about 189 kids on average enroll in The Crossing’s schools after Sept. 1. The Crossing’s unique funding program allows it to partner with public school districts to help pay for students who switch from a district school to one of the Crossing’s campuses.

“Throughout the year … unlike our traditional school counterparts, we see enrollment increasing,” Merlau said.

But if students aren’t coming from a public school, or the student’s home district doesn’t have a partnership with The Crossing, this bill would make it easier for those students who switch mid-year to receive a voucher.

Critics of the bill, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association, have called it the biggest voucher expansion since the option was first made available in 2011.

But supporters, including education reform lobbying group Hoosiers for Quality Education, argue that vouchers are a tool that give kids a chance at the kind of education their families decide is best. The group posted a call-to-action on its website, that so far has led to 450 people reaching out to Ritz in response, said Erin Sweitzer, HQE’s spokeswoman.

“It’s a huge disappointment to hear that Superintendent Ritz is calling for a pause on the expansion of school vouchers,” Sweitzer said. “This is simply a common-sense policy revision that is in the best interest of our students. In fact, many legislators thought this was already happening based on the fact that we already have two count days (fall and spring semester) for public schools.”

The Legislative Services Agency estimated that if 1,000 extra students applied for vouchers for the spring semester in 2018, it could cost the state an additional $2.1 million. In 2016, almost 33,000 students received vouchers that amounted to about $4,132 per student per year.

At the Senate Hearing, Indiana Department of Education lobbyist John Barnes said more study is needed, especially of costs, before the state decides to move ahead with the bill.

“We believe that, simply put, this is not the time for expansion,” Barnes said. “(Indiana needs to) take time to examine the impacts of vouchers before we proliferate programs.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

RIP

Senate plan to expand parents’ access to state education dollars dies in committee

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee heard SB 534 on Wednesday.

A Senate plan that would’ve given parents of students with special needs direct access to their state education funding was killed yesterday — for now.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said during the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill that there would be no vote on Senate Bill 534, which would’ve established “education savings accounts” for Indiana students with physical and learning disabilities. The plan would’ve been a major step forward for Indiana school choice advocates who have already backed the state’s charter school and voucher programs.

Kruse said there were still many questions about the bill.

“I don’t want a bill to leave our committee that still has a lot of work to be done on it,” Kruse said.

The Senate bill was one of two such plans winding its way through the 2017 Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1591 would create a similar program, but it would not be limited just to students needing special education. Authored by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, the “radical” proposal is meant to give parents total control over their child’s education.

“The intent of 1591 is to give parents the choice and let the market work,” Lucas said. “…I want to get this conversation started.”

A hearing for the House bill has not been scheduled in the House Education Committee, led by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Education savings accounts are slowly gaining attention across the U.S.

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.

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.