The tone of the 2021 budget session of the Indiana General Assembly has been quite different from the last budget session in 2019 when K-12 public education leaders stood with legislative leaders to announce a state budget that devoted $763 million in new funding for K-12 public education. Fast forward to this session, and it has been one consumed with a contentious debate on the proposed expansion of school choice programs that devote significant funds to private education. Indiana already ranks fifth for spending of state tax dollars on private school programs, but now ranks just 39th in the nation for per-pupil expenditures for public schools and the more than 1 million students we serve—down from 22nd among states in 2004. Why this shift in legislative priority has occurred is befuddling, given that the facts neither support the need nor benefit of state funding for private schools.
The Indiana School Boards Association, together with several other public education groups, urge legislators to build on the good budget passed in 2019 by providing adequate funding to address the teacher pay gap and a tuition support increase for public schools that keeps pace with, or exceeds, inflation. Choice Scholarship voucher expansion and the creation of Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) will cost an estimated $144 million over the next two years, diminishing the monies available to traditional public schools. Despite serving less than five percent of Indiana K-12 students, funding for the voucher program to pay for private education for eligible students will increase by more than 20 percent per year. The ESA program will be established at a projected cost of $19 million during the 2022-2023 school year and will operate much like a health savings account, where certain parents receive state tax dollars they can use to enroll their child in private education and pay for qualified educational expenses. The ESA concept treats education as a commodity purchased by parents with little accountability to the public for use of these funds, rather than a public good or benefit to all taxpayers and residents of Indiana.
The diversion of money away from the more than 90 percent of all students who families have chosen public education as their schools of choice means less funds for raising teacher pay. After his teacher compensation commission noted that Indiana has ranked last in the U.S. since 2001 for average annual teacher pay increases, the Governor in his State of the State speech advised legislators to avoid funding school choice expansion at the expense of the traditional public school system. The legislature is required by Article 8, Section 1, of the Indiana Constitution to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all. Open enrollment has led to more than 70,000 students this school year enrolling in another public school district outside of their district of residence. In comparison, the Choice Scholarship voucher program funds about 35,000 students, of which 61 percent of these students have never attended a public school. Legislative proposals will make even more families eligible for state-funded tuition to attend a private school. How so?
Eligibility to receive a voucher would expand from 150 percent to 300 percent of the amount to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price meals program. The annual income limit for a household of five would jump generously from approximately $85,000 to $170,000—more than twice Indiana’s median family income of $73,876. These families already have the means to afford private education.
It is important for Indiana citizens to know that a majority of the private schools benefitting from the Choice Scholarship voucher program are concentrated in just four counties—Marion, Allen, St. Joseph, and Lake County. On the other hand, 33 counties have no private school voucher providers, and another 20 counties only have one such voucher school. Why are hundreds of millions of dollars going to support so few students that don’t benefit all areas of the state, when K-12 public education in every county could be better funded?
Public schools are a pillar of our democracy and are the engines of opportunity for our citizenry. Public education remains necessary to produce a competitive workforce and serves as a catalyst for economic development and job growth. If the facts and statistics are compelling to you, please join the more than 170 school boards that have passed resolutions to express opposition to this agenda and ask your legislators to vote no to the expansion of private school choice.
Terry Spradlin, Executive Director, Indiana School Boards Association