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Big Indiana voucher expansion faces Republican questions

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, left, speaks with reporters alongside Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on May 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A major expansion proposed for Indiana’s private school voucher program could become a hurdle as the Republican-dominated Legislature works on a new state budget.

The expansion backed by House Republicans could cost more than $500 million over the next two years — nearly one-third of the total proposed school funding increase — by raising the income limit to qualify for state money toward private school tuition.

Democrats and many public school organizations oppose the expansion as draining money away from traditional public schools that educate about 90% of the state’s students. But the question will be whether Senate Republicans will go along with the proposal as they work with the House to reach a budget deal by their late April deadline.

Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray said the size of the voucher expansion approved by House Republicans was a key budget consideration.

“They’ve added a lot of money to the K-12 budget, but some of that is whittled down as to what actually goes to our traditional public schools because of the way they structured it,” Bray said Thursday. “So that’s why we’re taking a look at it.”

Republicans around the country have been pushing similar voucher systems for years, with Iowa lawmakers voting in January to join West Virginia and Arizona as states with few eligibility restrictions. At least a dozen states — including Arkansas and Kansas — have been debating similar programs this year.

The Indiana House plan centers on raising the family income limit for the federal free or reduced-price meals program from the current 300% of income eligibility to a 400% limit. That would boost the income limit for a family of four from the current $154,000 to $220,000. It would also continue a major program expansion that Republican lawmakers started in 2021 by raising that family size’s income limit for a full voucher payment from the $48,000 cap previously in place.

Estimates from the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency project that the expansion would result in the program’s cost growing nearly 250% in a five-year period — from $171 million for the 2020-21 school year to an estimated $595 million in 2024-25.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston has been a firm supporter of eventually lifting all income limits for the vouchers and called the program “extraordinarily successful.”

“They’re popular with families and we see no reason why we shouldn’t continue to expand them,” Huston said.

The broader eligibility provisions are projected to grow the voucher program from the current 53,500 students to some 95,000 students in two years. If the number of students reaches that level, that would be almost 170% more than the roughly 35,000 students receiving voucher payments before the 2021 expansion.

A state Department of Education report showed that all the voucher program enrollment growth in the first school year with that expansion was from students who had never attended an Indiana public school. A legislative report projected that if the program’s income limit was eliminated, nearly 90% of all new voucher students would be students who would have attended private schools anyway.

Voucher expansion opponents point to legislative projections that three-quarters of the state’s school districts would see funding increases of less than 2% in the second year of the House spending plan, which they argue would pinch their inflation-stressed budget and hurt efforts to boost Indiana’s lagging teacher pay.

Democratic Sen. Andrea Hunley, a former Indianapolis Public Schools elementary principal, called the voucher expansion a further financial “erosion” by directing one-third of additional state money to private schools with fewer than 10% of the state’s students.

“That leaves just 70% of new money to cover more than 90% of our students in public schools, which already have to fight year after year to secure every dollar possible to keep the lights on (and) to pay our teachers,” Hunley said.

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