Ritz: Indiana shouldn't expand its voucher program

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.”