A few years ago, the Bowen Center for Public Affairs’ annual Hoosier Survey asked Indiana residents about taxpayers funding vouchers for students to attend private and charter schools.
Fifty-eight percent of Hoosiers favored tax dollars going directly to Indiana’s public schools in that 2015 survey by the Bowen Center at Ball State University. Only 39 percent supported using state funds for private and charter school vouchers.
The leadership of the Indiana General Assembly’s ruling party has different education priorities, more aligned with the national education reform movement.
Controversy over House Bill 1005 epitomizes the contrast between the dominant Republican Party’s top legislators and average Hoosiers.
Indiana is struggling to attract and keep its public school teachers. A 2019 Rockefeller Institute study showed Indiana ranked last in the nation in teacher salary increases since 2000. Hoosier teachers and supporters demonstrated. Gov. Eric Holcomb appointed a commission to find specific ways to bolster educators’ pay, and after two years, the panel released its findings, outlining 37 recommendations to lift the average teacher salary to $60,000. It would require an investment of $600 million annually.
Though Holcomb’s 2019 and 2021 agendas have not included direct pay increases for teachers, his budget strategies have contained funds to pay down pensions and allow local school districts to boost pay scales.
The 2020 Hoosier Survey showed 55 percent of residents believed teacher pay should be increased and that the General Assembly should be responsible for providing the funds.
And, the disruptive coronavirus pandemic has stressed the finances of Indiana public schools, as districts work to equip staff and families with remote learning tools.
The introduction of House Bill 1005 seems to shrug off all of those pressing matters.
Instead, the Republican bill, as introduced, would have invested $202 million of the two-year education budget to expand the state’s voucher program and create education savings accounts. Those accounts would provide state funding to parents of special needs children, kids in foster care, and children of some military members and veterans to be used at their discretion for private school, home schooling, tutoring and other services.
The expansion would also open up vouchers to a higher-income tier — families of four earning $145,000 a year, or families of five earning $170,000, according to the Indiana School Boards Association.
Indiana has already become a petri dish for the national reform movement, diverting funds from public schools to its voucher program, where accountability is less stringent. The Legislature should instead put those funds toward public schools, so they can fully deliver the services and programs that any Hoosier kid would need and retain their teachers. Those public schools accept all students, as the Indiana Constitution requires. Ninety percent of Indiana students attend those public schools.
Amid pushback, the bill’s authors have amended it and reduced its overall cost to an estimated $60.7 million, according to the Legislative Services Agency. Still, its core intent clashes with the priorities of most Hoosiers.
“Lawmakers should reject education savings accounts and voucher expansion, and instead build on the good budget supporting public education passed in 2019 by continuing to address the teacher pay gap and funding a tuition support increase that keeps pace with, or exceeds, inflation,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.
Legislative leaders should roll up their sleeves and commit to bettering public schools, which are the cornerstone of Indiana communities’ future.