A push by Gov. Mike Pence and legislative Republicans to make it easier for students to qualify for Indiana’s private school vouchers is drawing stiff opposition from groups that prefer to pump more money into public schools.
The wide-ranging measure would allow current private-school students from households that earn up to about $64,000 for a family of four to qualify for Indiana’s two-year-old voucher program – and keep those vouchers even if their families’ income grows as high as $128,000. It would also offer their parents larger tax deductions.
The proposal was the subject of a five-hour hearing in the House Education Committee on Tuesday, and will get a vote in the panel’s Thursday meeting. It’s a top item on Pence’s first-year legislative agenda.
“The governor has consistently stated that there’s nothing that ails public education that cannot be cured by giving teachers more freedom to teach and parents more choices in the education of their children,” said Marilee Springer, Pence’s top policy adviser.
House Bill 1003, being carried by House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, would do away with Indiana’s requirement that students spend at least one year in public schools before they can qualify for private school vouchers.
It would expand eligibility so that students whose families earn up to three times the amount necessary to qualify for free or reduced lunch would qualify. And it would eliminate income restrictions entirely for foster children and those with special needs.
The measure would also increase from $1,000 to $3,000 the amount of education expenses such as textbooks that parents of home-schooled or private-schooled children could write off as tax deductions. To Democrats’ dismay, that deduction is not available for public school parents.
And it would launch a new dollar-for-dollar tax credit for Hoosiers who donate to organizations that hand out pre-kindergarten scholarships.
The overall bill would “directly subsidize private schools,” Suzanne Felli, an Indianapolis public school volunteer, told the committee Tuesday.
“This creates an even larger subsidy program which is for the benefit of private and religious schools,” said Joel Hand, the executive director of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. “All it does is expedite the drain of funding from public schools.”
He said the bill would move Indiana in a direction that would ultimately result in public schools being attended by “only those children whose parents cannot possibly find a way to send them to a private school or children whose parents simply don’t care about their kids.”
He and other parents and public-school advocates said the state should instead use the money for increases in K-12 public school funding – a $6.3 billion per year line item in Indiana’s budget, but that Pence proposed only $63 million in increases for next year.
Parents and private-school leaders lined up to support Behning’s bill, as well. They said since Indiana schools are currently funded on a per-pupil basis, spending money on private schools wouldn’t actually cut funding for public education.
Kevin Abbott, a South Bend father of five children, said he and his wife have spent about 20 percent of their take-home pay on private school tuition.
He said he has three children currently attending a private Christian school in Mishawaka, and that eliminating the requirement that they attend public school for a year in order to qualify for a voucher would ease his family’s burden.
“It’s probably not a good choice for our kids to remove them from school, put them in another school and bring them back again,” he said. “Financial matters are important to us, but not as important as our children’s education.”
Even if the voucher expansion measure clears the Indiana House, it could see changes once it crosses the Statehouse hallway.
Senate Education and Career Development Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse said Tuesday that he’ll give the bill a hearing and a vote – but that he considers it a “pretty broad” expansion of a voucher program he thinks it’s too early to change drastically.
He’d originally planned to give a vote on a Senate bill that would allow siblings of students already using the voucher program to qualify without spending a year in public schools, and that he could look for a final bill that splits the difference between that and the House proposal.
“There might be some middle ground in between there,” said Kruse, R-Auburn.
He said eliminating the requirement that students first spend one year in public schools “gives me some pause” because lawmakers envisioned the voucher program as one for students who knew from experience that public schools weren’t for them.
“There’s some value in having that experience,” Kruse said. “I’d say that doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever – we may change it. But that was one of the premises when we passed it, that one year in public schools, and there was some justification for that.”