Both the IBJ and the Capital Chronicle have reported on the legislature’s current effort to totally privatize education in Indiana. If passed, Senate Bill 305 would allow any and all parents to get taxpayer money to enroll their children in a private school or home school them.
The legislation would dramatically expand Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESAs)–a more neutral term for the vouchers that–for very good reason– are no longer as popular as they once were.
In 2021, Indiana’s General Assembly approved ESA’s for special education students by burying the proposal in the budget, where it escaped much in the way of sustained scrutiny. SB305 would expand the program to all students, via a universal Education Scholarship Account.
The existing ESAs are limited to students who qualify for special education, and whose families meet income limits. (Not that those limits aren’t generous–a family of four can make up to $154,000 annually. That’s three times the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.)
SB 305 would extend the ESA program to all students, regardless of a student’s educational needs or their family’s income level.
So what’s wrong with ESA’s?
As numerous observers point out, there’s a lot wrong. For one thing, the bill lacks any public oversight or measures ensuring accountability. The state would simply give tax dollars to parents who would be trusted to spend it on their children’s education (there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism to ensure that the dollars would actually be used for education) at any school of their choice, or for home schooling and/or educational materials.
Apparently, all a parent needs to do to get some $7500 per student is fill out an online application promising to spend “part of the money” for the study of “reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies or science.” No standards. No requirements for art, music, foreign language or–perish the thought–civics. Not even those pesky criminal background checks required of public school teachers and volunteers.
Interestingly, the program would be managed by the state’s treasurer–not the Department of Education.
Clearly, education isn’t the goal.
Researchers have exhaustively documented the results of current voucher programs, and repeatedly demonstrated that these programs have failed to improve educational outcomes. Over 90% of voucher recipients take them to religious schools that frequently substitute dogma for science and history. My own research confirms that–in Indiana at least– few, if any, include civics instruction. (My personal favorite among the history textbooks most widely used in these religious schools describes slave trade as “sometimes unwilling black immigration.” Ya think?)
As the Capital Chronicle reported,
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 the remaining 43,000 would be eligible for the grant, which would average around $7,500 statewide.
That would add more than $300 million a year to what the state is already sending to private, mostly religious schools.
The voucher program started similarly with a cap of 7,500 students at a cost of $15 million. The cap doubled the next year and now there is no limit and a current annual cost of $240 million.
As I reminded readers a few days ago, Indiana’s current voucher program classifies families that earn up to $145,000 per year as “poor” enough to have the state pay for their kids to attend private schools. Qualification for state-funded childcare and/or pre-kindergarden is a different matter: families bringing home a mere $27,500 are “too rich” to qualify.
None of this makes sense unless the legislature’s actual goal is to encourage an exodus from the state’s public schools, a goal that furthers other longtime efforts: destroying the teacher’s union, and finding a “work-around” of the First Amendment’s prohibition against funneling tax dollars to religious organizations.
SB 305’s proposed expansion would cost a fortune and fail to deliver educational benefits. Worse, those dollars would come from our already under-resourced public schools. That would especially harm rural Hoosiers who live in areas too sparsely populated to support private alternatives.
Since it is no longer possible to defend vouchers on educational grounds, this misbegotten effort is being sold under the current MAGA banner of “parental choice.”
Whenever I hear these culture warriors utter the word “choice,” I expect a bolt of lightning to strike. They want the “choice” to avoid vaccinations, the “choice” not to have their children learn accurate history, the “choice” to keep “Heather Has Two Mommies” out of the library…
But other people’s choices? (The choice to support sound, secular public education, or terminate a pregnancy, for example?) Not so fast!
If SB 305 passes, it will certainly affect the choices of people who might otherwise be thinking of relocating to Indiana.