Indiana parents, education advocates split over school choice budget increases

A pencil on a wooden school desk in an empty classroom.
Indiana lawmakers are considering a plan to increase funding for the state’s voucher program. But advocates for traditional public education told legislators Thursday that 90% of Hoosier kids attend public schools, and called for significant increases to tuition support to cover rising costs due to inflation, among other changes. (Getty Images)

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This article originally published in the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

Dozens of Hoosiers descended upon the Statehouse to call for increased K-12 funding in the next state budget, but much of the testimony heard on Thursday was split over a pending proposal to more than double taxpayer spending on Indiana’s school choice voucher program.

The Senate School Funding Subcommittee heard more than five hours of testimony on the possible voucher expansion, as well as other K-12 budget requests for English learners and special education.

Discussions also centered around “equalized” funding for charter schools. 

School district officials and advocates for traditional public education noted that 90% of Hoosier kids attend public schools. As such, they called for even greater increases to tuition support to cover rising costs due to inflation, and to compensate for an unfunded mandate in the current budget proposal that would require schools to dip into base funding to cover textbook costs. 

The very nature of private schools means that they can — and do — discriminate. – Joel Hand, of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education

That state’s largest teacher’s union additionally emphasized that under the House-approved version of the budget, private school vouchers would get a 70% funding boost in Fiscal Year 2024. Traditional public schools would see only a 5% increase, however.

School choice supporters said parents deserve the right to more flexibility and customization in their children’s education. Doing so requires increased access to private schools, but also public charters. Those schools cannot currently draw on local property tax dollars like traditional public schools can, but a new funding stream carved into the House Republican budget seeks to remedy that.

Nearly half of the House Republican budget, 48%, goes to K-12 education, which will get a boost of nearly $2 billion over its current appropriation. One-third of that new funding will go to the Choice Scholarship program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. And another chunk would come off the top to cover textbooks. 

“Every dollar that goes to a public school gets put to use in helping ensure that the school can meet the educational needs of every kid who lives in that community … this is just the basic duty that we owe to our kids and our communities,” said Diane Hannah, a mom of three from Carmel. “This voucher expansion, by contrast, is a luxury. It is redundant. This budget would send tax dollars to wealthy Hoosiers to do something that they already can afford to do.”

The Senate likely won’t unveil their version of the state budget until later this month. A final version of the budget is expected by the end of April.

School choice versus ‘inequitable funding’

Expanded eligibility for the voucher program 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.

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.

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.

“We’re funding more and more money for students to go to private schools, when their results academically are decreasing,” said Joel Hand, representing the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and the American Federation of Teachers of Indiana. He pointed to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame which found that Hoosier students who leave public schools to attend voucher institutions showed declines in both math and language arts.

“Private school choice is not educational freedom for the parents, but is rather an opportunity for these private schools to pick and choose which students they want,” Hand continued. “The very nature of private schools means that they can — and do — discriminate.”

But John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said parents should have a say over where their tax dollars go when it comes to educating their kids. 

While the group hopes to see an elimination of the income ceiling, Elcesser said the 400% cap is a good move, in the meantime. The association additionally supports the House’s proposed elimination of the eight pathways currently in place that determine student eligibility for the voucher program. 

“I often say you need a PhD to understand who is actually eligible for the program,” Elcesser said. “Removal (of the pathways), if nothing else, would simplify the program so parents might have a better understanding if they’re eligible to participate or not.”

Elcesser noted, too, that the non-public school group wants to see Choice Scholarship eligibility expanded to include kindergarteners.

Multiple parents who testified Thursday further expressed support for a GOP-backed plan to ensure that every non-virtual charter school receives the same amount of per student funding as traditional public schools.

Voucher schools receive state funding 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. They also can reject any student. Critics have long maintained that such schools lack transparency and accountability to the public.

Meanwhile, charter school critics have long argued that such schools are not obligated to serve every student in a given community — unlike their traditional public counterparts.

The public charters also have private boards and are therefore not accountable to voters, opponents say. They held, too, that finances at charter schools are also less transparent, given that they are not subject to the same budgetary oversight as traditional public schools. 

More dollars still needed for ELL, special education

Still, school officials from across the state called for more resources to address increasingly common — and costly — behavioral and mental health needs among students. 

“Teachers have been burdened with doing more to support the mental health and wellness of students which diminishes their ability to focus on teaching and learning,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, noting that Indiana’s ratio of students per school counselor, 694 students per one counselor, ranks the state last in the nation.

David Clendening, Superintendent at Franklin Community Schools, added that his district needs more funding to help counsel and educate “violent, behavior-dysregulated students.”

“The increase is no longer gradual,” he said of such students, of whom many struggle with trauma, mental and behavioral health conditions, learning disabilities and family issues. “We think the root issues are many and varied. Violent, aggressive, disruptive and otherwise dysregulated children can be complex and challenging.”

Although Indiana schools could see increases to foundation grants — the basic grant for every student — of 4% in fiscal year 2024 under the draft budget, those grant amounts would go up just 0.7% in the following year. Denny Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, said that means about three out of every four Indiana school districts would get less than a 2% increase — or less funding overall — in 2025.

Kathy Friend, chief financial officer at Fort Wayne Community Schools, said her district stands to lose over $17 million under the model in combination with the requirement to cover students’ textbook fees.

Supplemental “complexity” funding schools receive for low-income and at-risk students is also set to increase under the House Republican plan — up 4.4% in fiscal year 2024 and 1% in fiscal year 2025. Friend said that’s a welcome increase for Fort Wayne Community Schools, which serves one of the largest English learner populations in the state.

Mary Bova, a teacher for English learners in Indianapolis, said she also wants to see more ELL funding in the state budget, citing her own caseload of 67 students — far more than the state recommendation of 30 students.

“Being an ELL teacher has been the most heartbreaking and rewarding profession imaginable. It’s heartbreaking because so many of my students are misunderstood, and often called lazy, but they are undoubtedly the hardest working people I know,” Bova said, adding that charter schools deserve more funding, as well, to help support growing populations of English learners attending those schools. “If ELL students had more funding, my school may be able to afford more teachers, more support and more resources for students who need it.”

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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