Montgomery County’s three school districts are speaking out against a bill that would expand the state’s private school voucher program.
Indiana House Bill 1005 would open eligibility for state vouchers to more students from middle-income families, raising income eligibility for a family of four up to about $110,000 per year in 2022, and a little more than $145,000 by 2023.
The income bar exceeds the maximum amount allowed for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program by 225% in 2022, and 300% the following year. It’s also nearly double Indiana’s median income for families, which is about $74,000 per year.
Income tiers within the program would additionally be eliminated, awarding all participating students the maximum award — 90% of the amount the state would have provided to their public district.
The House passed the measure by a 61-38 vote last week. State Rep. Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville) voted in favor of the bill and State Rep. Sharon Negele (R-Attica) voted against it. The bill now moves to the Senate.
In an open letter to lawmakers Friday, the local school districts said the current version of the bill fails to hold private schools in the voucher program to the same auditing requirements of traditional public schools.
“As a public school corporation, we welcome and embrace the auditing process because it enables us to discover unintentional mistakes, as well as mitigate the risk of any potential misuse of taxpayer funds,” the letter reads. “While we understand and respect the need for the separation of church and state, we believe it is equally important that all taxpayer dollars be accounted for.”
“The fact that these specific taxpayer dollars are being spent at a private institution should not deter the Indiana General Assembly from ensuring taxpayer dollars are used in a proper, efficient and judicious manner.”
The letter was signed by the superintendents and board presidents from each local school district: Dr. Scott Bowling and Steve McLaughlin of Crawfordsville, Dr. Colleen Moran and Gary Bohlander of North Montgomery and Dr. Shawn Greiner and Brad Monts of South Montgomery.
The school leaders also raised concerns about the bill’s creation of state-funded education savings accounts that provide grants to parents of children with special needs to spend on their education without fiscal accountability.
Students in foster care, as well as some whose parents are serving in the armed forces or are veterans, would qualify for the stipends, too.
The savings accounts would be more generous than vouchers, providing the full amount the state would otherwise spend on a student’s schooling. Parents could choose to use the money to pay for tuition, or for other education expenses like tutoring, therapy or technological devices.
The letter also says the current bill would expand the voucher program by taking money from the fund that provides tuition support for all Indiana public schools, rather than the local district.
Montgomery County’s school districts lost nearly $940,000 in funding from vouchers this school year, up from more than $864,000 in the 2018-19, according to budget documents cited in the letter.
Roughly 38,000 newly eligible students are expected to make the switch from a traditional school corporation if the program expansion passes, according to the Legislative Services Agency. Another 12,000 students who already attend participating private schools, but don’t currently qualify for state aid, would also become eligible for funding.
Because the pandemic has also forced parents to be more engaged in their children’s education, there’s increased interest in non-public schooling options, said Betsy Wiley, president of the advocacy group Institute for Quality Education, which backs Indiana’s charter school and private school voucher programs.
“I think this bill provides more families in Indiana an opportunity to access the schools that they may not be able to access, but want to,” Wiley said. “A number of our private schools have been able to be open the whole time during the pandemic and provide for in-person learning. Families are saying they have different wants now, and so school choice and the ability to make those decisions has never been in greater demand than it is now.”
The voucher program cost the state about $173 million last school year. If expanded under the legislation, taxpayers would be on the hook for an additional $108 million in the next fiscal year, and another $93 million in 2023. The state’s expenditure increase would eventually decline to roughly $80 million annually after about five years.
Officials further estimate that public school revenue from state tuition support would decrease by upwards of $80 million by 2023 — a result of students moving to non-public schools by way of vouchers.
In addition to laying out concerns about the House bill, the local school leaders also called for the return of over $2.7 million in tuition support funding for salary increases for educators.
The Associated Press contributed to this report