School boards push back against Indiana voucher expansions


INDIANAPOLIS — Local school leaders across Indiana are lining up against a Republican-backed school funding plan over concerns it wold give private schools a big financial boost at the detriment of traditional public schools.

Projected to cost $144 million, the voucher expansion and a new program allowing parents to directly spend state money on their child’s education expenses would siphon more than one-third of the proposed state funding hike for Indiana schools.

In response, at least 65 public school boards have passed formal resolutions against the proposed legislation through a campaign organized by the Indiana School Boards Association. Terry Spradlin, the association’s executive director, said that more than a third of the state’s 289 school districts are expected to adopt resolutions before legislators finalize the budget next month.

“Folks are speaking up and speaking out locally and that’s what we’re encouraging them to do,” he said. “We’re arguing that now’s not the time for additional expansion. We want public funds to fund public schools. We want them to support public education and have the dollars follow the child.”

In addition to urban school districts around Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Evansville, dozens of smaller school corporations have also signaled their dissent.

In what’s believed to be the first and largest meeting of its kind in Indiana, members of eight school boards in rural northern Indiana gathered last week to each pass respective resolutions. Five other school boards sent representatives or administrators to the meeting, though they did not hold votes.

“Some may ask, ‘Why are we meeting on these bills when many of us don’t have private or charter schools in our districts, or even close to our districts?’” North White Superintendent Nick Eccles said during last week’s meeting. “My response is simple: Any of us can have a charter or private school move into our districts at any time, which can greatly cripple our budgets.”

Thirty-three of Indiana’s 92 counties do not have a voucher program option, and another 31 counties only have one private school taking part in the program, Spradlin said. Nearly all of those students are instead educated through public schools, meaning “those dollars should come back home and support our kids,” he said.

“Increasing the funds for those programs from … that’s taking away and diverting money that could go to our schools, our students, our families, our constituents and our communities,” Spradlin said. “We can tinker around the edges with these fringe programs that educate a few, and a small percentage of children, or we can invest in our public education system with 1 million of our citizens enrolled in those schools.”

Republicans who dominated the Legislature say their proposal gives parents more choices over how to educate their children, while Democrats and other opponents argue that it further drains funding from traditional school districts while they are struggling to find ways to boost the state’s lagging teacher pay.

The debate comes as the state Senate is considering both the state budget plan and school voucher expansion bill approved by the House last month.

The House budget plan would increase the base funding for K-12 schools by 1.25% during the first year and 2.5% in the second year of the new budget that would start in July. That would mean about $378 million more for total school funding over the two years — with about $125 million possibly going to additional voucher costs and $19 million to the new family spending account program.

The voucher plan approved by the House would raise income eligibility for a family of four from the current roughly $96,000 a year to about $145,000 in 2022. It also would allow all those students to receive the full voucher amount, rather than the current tiered system that limits full vouchers to such families with incomes of about $48,000.

The new program dubbed education savings accounts providing grants to parents of children with special needs to spend on their education. Students in foster care, as well as some whose parents are serving in the military or are veterans, would also for the stipends. Parents could choose to use the money to pay for tuition, or for other education expenses like tutoring, therapy or technological devices.

The voucher program changes are projected to boost participation by some 12,000 students, or about one-third, over the next two years from the current enrollment of some 37,000 students. About 1 million students attend traditional public schools in the state.

“Without high quality public schools, our democracy is going to crumble,” said J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. “Ninety-two-percent of the kids in Indiana attend public schools. Why are we diverting money away from the majority of kids?”

Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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