The session's not quite over, but indications are that some lawmakers might be growing a bit nervous about the havoc they wreaked on Indiana schools last year. Against all odds, the General Assembly is about to adjourn without expanding the nation's most expansive school voucher program. Two other bills harmful to public education are struggling toward the finish line.
Senate Bill 296, in its original form, would have opened up the school voucher program to eighth-graders who always attended private or parochial schools, provided they received a tuition scholarship at some point. But the fiscal implications of broadly opening up voucher eligibility prompted lawmakers to pare the bill back so that it merely tweaks income eligibility. If approved, it would have very minimal impact on the number of students eligible for vouchers.
Senate Bill 348 is more worrisome, as it would hand state accreditation authority over to private firms approved by the State Board of Education, including religious organizations. Another provision tacked on the bill gives broad new authority to the for-profit turnaround school operators chosen to run struggling public schools.
As of today, the bill looked to be in trouble. It passed the House by a 53-45 vote, with eight Republicans joining the Democratic opposition. There's a chance the troublesome language will be stuffed in another bill that includes language lawmakers are eager to approve, but there are indications that lawmakers are finally growing leery of the growing role of for-profit companies in Indiana public education. They should be – as Election Day approaches, the political contributions made by some of those companies is going to come into sharper focus.
With the high-profile right to work battle and the smoking ban antics, it would have been easy to slip more harmful public education bills under the radar. The Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a group of public school supporters established last year to fight the voucher bill, deserves lots of credit for keeping a sharp eye on the legislative agenda this year. The group's testimony on the poor financial reporting of the private school scholarship granting organizations, for example, likely kept SB 296 from expanding voucher eligibility.