INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The fate of a proposal to expand Indiana’s private
school voucher program by making kindergartners and some other students
immediately eligible could come down to something that no one seems to know
- how much it will cost.
A bill that a Senate committee is set to take up makes several exemptions
from the requirement included in the 2011 law that all students spend at
least one year in public schools before becoming eligible for a voucher if
their families meet income limits.
Money issues already prompted House Republican budget-writers to scale back
the proposal that would’ve opened the program up to thousands of more
students by waiving the one-year public school requirement for current
private school students.
Democrats maintain it’s irresponsible to expand the program when it is only
in its second year and a lawsuit challenging it is awaiting a ruling from
the state Supreme Court.
Challenges that advocates of expanding voucher eligibility might face in the
Republican-dominated Senate, however, are the cost and questions of whether
the Legislature should start making exceptions to the 2011 compromise that
then-Gov. Mitch Daniels touted as giving public schools a chance to win over
students and parents.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he
was hesitant to back the voucher expansion for both reasons. “I think we
struck a bargain there a couple years ago,” Kenley said. “I think we need to
let it work four or five years before we start monkeying with it too much.”
The Senate education committee is scheduled to have a public hearing
Wednesday on the proposal that’s being backed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence,
with a committee vote possible the following week.
The committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn, said he
saw some merit to having the public school requirement, but was open to the
bill’s exceptions for siblings of current voucher students, children in
military and foster families and for children with special needs.
“I think there’s a better case for that,” Kruse said. “The kindergarteners
are a bigger change in that policy.”
About 9,100 Indiana students are receiving vouchers averaging nearly $4,100
each this school year. The House Republican budget proposal forecasts
spending for the voucher program to grow over the next two years from the
current $37 million a year to $63 million annually, with the number of
students growing to 15,000 in the 2014-2015 school year.
A report by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency said it couldn’t
determine an estimate on the cost of the proposed voucher expansion, but
that it “is likely to be significant.”
The state Supreme Court is weighing the legality of the program after
hearing arguments in November over a lawsuit pressed by the Indiana State
Teachers Association that virtually all of the voucher money goes to schools
whose primary purpose is to promote the teachings of their affiliated
Voucher supporter Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, said he believed the bill’s
provisions for expanded eligibility are the “logical next moves” to allow
low-income families more options in the education of their children.
Eckerty said he wasn’t convinced the expansion would cost the state that
much because private schools have a limited number of additional students
they can accept.
“I’m not expecting any big expansion of private school seats,” Eckerty said.
“I just don’t think we’re going to have it.”
Lindsey Brown, executive director of School Choice Indiana, said the group
had sought an elimination of the public school requirement but understood
the state’s financial concerns about doing so this year.
Brown said while the vast majority of Indiana’s more than 1 million students
will remain in public schools, she didn’t believe that low-income families
should have their options limited by the current law that makes their
children unable to receive vouchers before 2nd grade.
“They shouldn’t be forced to attend a school that may or may not meet their
needs for two years until they can become eligible for the program,” Brown
The prospect of loosening the voucher eligibility rules raises worries about
where the number of students in it will peak, said Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre
“The more quickly it grows, then the more quickly money is being drawn from
the public school system and something’s gotta give,” said Skinner, a
retired teacher from West Vigo High School.