House Bill 1003 would lift a spending cap on Indiana’s voucher program and ditch a requirement that students attend public school for a year before becoming eligible.
Although the program currently pays up to 90 percent of a high school student’s tuition, it limits the voucher to $4,500 for those in grades two through eight. House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning’s (R-Indianapolis) bill raises the cap to $5,500 beginning in June 2013 and $6,500 in June 2014.
HB1003 would also allow siblings of current voucher students to receive a voucher without first attending a public school.
Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) says this will result in the state “funding people who already are paying for their own private education of their children.”
That argument is “a red herring” designed to confuse the issue, said Robert Enlow, president of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
“There are all sorts of people ‘who can pay’ who are getting a supposedly free education right now,” Enlow said. “How many millionaires in gated communities, for example, get a public education for free even though they could pay?”
Behning noted parents would still be required to be under the program’s income ceiling, and said, “These families and their children should not be punished because they have sacrificed to provide the best possible educational choice for their children in the past.”
Families with incomes up to 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or $63,964 for a family of four, are eligible .
Voucher enrollment more than doubled in 2012-2013, the program’s second year, from 3,919 participants to 9,130.
“There is no doubt that there is demand for increasing the access to vouchers to as many children as possible,” said Leslie Hiner, a Friedman Foundation vice president.
Dayana Vazquez-Buquer, 16, emigrated from Mexico with her family when she was six years old. The voucher program allows her and her younger sister, Ashley, to attend Catholic schools in Indianapolis, which perform better than their previous public schools.
Vouchers mean “an opportunity to do better in life and have a great chance to not just get good grades and all that but actually get to a point, get to a goal, by those grades,” Vazquez-Buquer said.
Many Indiana private schools accepting vouchers ranked among the best in state on state tests.
“A voucher is not charity,” Hiner said. “It’s a method of funding education that recognizes that every child should have the right to attend any school where the child can learn, regardless of the income of that child’s parents.”
Senate Republicans Uncertain
Although the bill seems likely to pass the House, it faces scrutiny among Senate Republicans concerned about the additional costs. The average voucher currently covers $3,932 in private school tuition, a significant savings compared to the $5,000 to $8,000 (depending on the district) the state currently spends on each public school student. Unused state money goes back to districts.
If one quarter of the current voucher students have siblings who will use vouchers, opponents estimate it will cost Indiana nearly $9 million a year because districts retain state money above the voucher amount for each voucher student that leaves their local public school. In 2012, the vouchers program sent $4 million back to traditional public schools.
Enlow said these overall savings would cover the costs of expanding the program.
“The [extra] distribution to traditional public schools might shrink, but it wouldn’t disappear,” he said.
The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments on the program in November, but has not yet rendered a decision. The arguments hinged on whether the program constitutes the state government sponsoring a religion by sending money to some Christian schools, or whether the program does no such thing because individuals, not the state, choose where to send the money.
“The Market for School Choice in Indiana,” Michael Q. McShane, American Enterprise Institute, November 15, 2012: http://aei.org/papers/education/k-12/school-choice/the-market-for-school-choice-in-indiana/ .
“Indiana Voucher Enrollment Doubles in Second Year,” Rachel Sheffield, September 25, 2012: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2012/09/25/indiana-voucher-enrollment-doubles-second-year