Tony Cook and Stephanie Wang
Indiana’s school voucher program is already the broadest in the nation — and now Gov. Mike Pence wants to provide even more money for vouchers.
In announcing his legislative agenda Thursday, Pence said he will ask state lawmakers to lift the cap on the dollar amount for vouchers and raise the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program. He also proposed adding more funding for public charter schools.
“Together, these actions will make charters more available and more affordable, and make new choices available for many parents and their students,” Pence said.
But the changes could also have a significant impact on the state budget and shift money away from traditional public schools.
“It’s time to start debating the cost of these vouchers,” said Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “They want to funnel all the dollars to private institutions. If they’re not going to slit the throats of those in public education, they certainly have the knife held there.”
Pence said the goal is to increase by 100,000 the number of K-12 students in schools with a grade of B or better on the state’s A-F school grading system.
“We do need to increase funding, but we need to do it the right way, the smart way,” he said. “We need to fund excellence.”
Indiana’s voucher program is already the most expansive in the nation, allowing nearly 30,000 students to attend private schools using public money. Unlike programs in many other states, it is not limited to students at failing public schools.
Right now, vouchers for kindergarten through eighth grade are capped at $4,800. Brian Bailey, the governor’s budget director, said lifting that cap would cost about $3.5 million.
The governor also wants to add a grant for charter schools to the state’s education funding formula, though his budget staff said the amount would depend on the state revenue forecast due later this month.
Charter schools, which are privately operated, already receive the same per pupil state funding as public schools, but unlike public schools, they don’t receive additional money for buildings or transportation.
At the losing end of both proposals is the state teachers union, a once-strong force in state politics that has been weakened in recent years by Democrats diminishing influence.
Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the expansion of charter schools and vouchers “continues to siphon away money from public schools.”
“It’s harming students that need to have schools that are strong in their communities,” she said.
Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated General Assembly were generally supportive of the proposals, but it’s unclear how much money will be available to fund them.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has already proposed more parity in per pupil funding between lower-income urban districts, which receive more, and higher-income suburban districts, which receive less. He also wants to increase the base funding amount that all schools receive.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, the Senate’s chief budget writer, said his support for Pence’s proposals will depend on how much money is available.
“If we don’t have the funds, then whether or not you want to do that is probably a moot question,” he said.
He said the state’s voucher program was once a money saver, since it provides only 50 percent to 90 percent of public per-pupil funding in a student’s district, based on family income.
But changes made since the program was approved in 2011 have allowed students who have never attended public schools to receive vouchers as well.
“It becomes a cost issue,” he said.
About 19,809 students received vouchers in the 2013-14 school year, more than double the previous year’s total. Those vouchers redirected $81 million in state aid from public schools to private schools.
While the program saved the state money in previous years, it cost the state an extra $16 million, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Chuck Little, an education professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, said he’s not enthusiastic about spending more money on charter schools and vouchers.
“I think that if the expansion of vouchers continues to come at a dollar cost to public schools, particularly financing youngsters who have never been in the public school system, the pool of money for education gets diluted. Less goes to the public schools, and the burdens to deliver become even more challenging,” he said. “It just dilutes the system, pulls away from the common good, and there haven’t been remarkable results.”
But Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said lifting the cap on vouchers would help low-income families better afford private educations.
“That cap is unfair to low-income families, and it’s arbitrary,” he said.
Enlow said the state is also approaching the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program, where private contributions subsidize choice scholarships. The program is limited to $7.5 million in tax credits, which allows up to $15 million in donations, according to the state Department of Education website.
The governor said Thursday he wants to increase that limit, too.
Ultimately, the General Assembly will have to sign off on Pence’s proposals. The legislative session begins Jan. 6.