Education budget steers money away from most Hoosiers

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Aim Media Indiana

The Indiana General Assembly concluded its session last week by agreeing to spend more on K-12 education in the next two years.

However, the budget fails the overwhelming majority of Hoosier students and parents.

The budget was a victory, though, for hardcore supporters of Indiana’s dubious school voucher program and the private schools those vouchers support.

Under the two-year budget passed by the legislature, “Expanded eligibility for Choice Scholarships — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools — will raise the income ceiling to 400% of the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program, equal to about $220,000,” indianacapitalchronicle.com reported.

Put another way, this voucher expansion gives a private school subsidy to Indiana families who earn between $154,000 and $220,000 a year.

Republicans who hold a supermajority in the Statehouse hailed this as a great victory because they said this level of funding makes school choice vouchers virtually universal for Hoosier parents. This has long been their goal, even as the value of vouchers is highly debatable.

Whatever your position on school choice vouchers, though, it’s clear from the budget that our state’s leaders are failing basic math, and that is failing the vast majority of Hoosier students and parents.

We say this because even before this boost in funding that makes vouchers almost universally available, 80% of Hoosier students already qualified for them. And yet, less than 4% of eligible students used a voucher to choose to go to a private school.

If vouchers and school choice are such tonics for what critics say ails K-12 education, why do so few families opt for them?

Let us simply observe that parents decide where their children go to school. And the math shows that of the parents who already could use a private school voucher, 96% don’t.

This suggests parents are satisfied with their child’s school or don’t believe their child would be better served taking a voucher to enroll in a private school.

Perhaps there is good reason to think that. Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy in November published a brief, “Evolving Evidence on School Voucher Effects.” It summarized recent research as follows: “School vouchers have long been promoted on the grounds that they improve access to quality educational options. However, recent studies have shown large, negative impacts of vouchers on student achievement.”

But lawmakers haven’t shown the intellectual curiosity to investigate such data. Instead, they used this budget to go all in on vouchers. Funding for vouchers will grow 69% in the budget’s first year and 14% the second, according to indianacapitalchronicle.com.

Yet in public schools — where, remember, 96% of those eligible for vouchers still go — average per student funding will increase just 3.4% in the budget’s first year and 1.7% in the second. Last year, inflation was 6.5%, so the budget increases won’t even keep up with costs. And lawmakers only added this funding for public schools at the last minute, despite vocal pleas for additional school funding.

Numbers don’t lie. And the lesson for the vast majority of Hoosier parents and students who choose public schools is this: Your elected leaders care far more about their voucher program.