When former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels began pitching the idea of school choice — vouchers — the rhetoric was that this was a wise use of state funds to help poor kids in failing schools. Listening to political leaders now, it is abundantly clear the voucher scheme has grown far beyond those altruistic goals.
To no one’s surprise, the political maneuvering and ideological shenanigans reached a crescendo this spring as the Indiana General Assembly, with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s approval, expanded the voucher program’s budget to an estimated $500 million for fiscal year 2024 and $595 million in 2025. That’s up from $240 million in the current budget.
There are 36 voucher schools in Allen County and those counties contiguous. Most are in Allen County.
Last year, the maximum household income to qualify for a voucher for a family of four was $165,000. Next year, the maximum to receive this entitlement jumps to $220,000, a level of prosperity that would put a family in the country’s top 10% of households.
Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of the Institute for Quality Education, proclaims Indiana now has a universal voucher program. She also declared this to be an education-friendly budget.
We strenuously disagree.
The extraordinary disparity between the supermajority’s K-12 priorities this past session was highlighted by education blogger Steve Hinnefield: “In fiscal year 2024, state funding for vouchers will increase by 72.3%. That compares with a 5.4% increase in state spending for traditional public schools and a 16.2% increase for charter schools.”
If the principle was that taxpayer education money for K-12 should follow the child rather than the home district, then the cash has flowed well to parochial elementary and secondary schools. (Canterbury School does not accept vouchers.)
Since its inception in 2011, the voucher program’s budget has risen to accommodate more children from wealthier backgrounds, thus changing the argument from “helping the poor” to, as Wiley pointed out, a universal program. But unfortunately, the accountability and transparency piece has not changed.
Even with the voucher spigot turned to full blast, voucher schools do not have public meetings as school corporations are, rightly, forced to hold. These schools are not beholden to Freedom of Information Act laws that allow organizations to see how funds are used.
As the Indiana Coalition for Public Education pointed out, the State Board of Accounts cannot audit voucher schools.
Indiana voucher schools can turn away students, families and faculty for reasons that public schools cannot: students with learning disabilities, low test scores, or English as a second language learners. The schools can deny admission or faculty positions to people who do not align with the school’s non-academic principles, something public school corporations could be sued for doing. In addition, though these schools report test scores, curriculum matters are unchecked.
The door to school choice is open if one conforms to parochial traditions and partisan principles. And we’re paying for this evident blurring of church and state, which has consequences.
Earlier in the legislative session, Mishawaka Republican Sen. Ryan Mishler, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, blasted a voucher school in his district – a school where his son was enrolled – for mishandling alleged “mistreatment and bullying” of students by staff.
In an open letter published in February, Mishler said administrators rebuffed him when he sought answers.
Morally, the problem of bullying is a subject that knows no boundaries in terms of institutions, public or private. However, the school receives state funds and answers Mishler’s demands with a dismissive tone that could get a public school administrator publicly reprimanded or possibly even fired.
This kind of unaccountable contempt for the people’s generosity with tax dollars can’t possibly be what the framers of the state Constitution or generators of Indiana’s voucher plan intended.