Indiana school-voucher proponents connected last week over wine and hors d'oeuvres at a National School Choice Week reception at the upscale Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis. By week's end, they had more to celebrate in House Bill 1675, a voucher expansion bill that could cost taxpayers as much as $170 million a year.
Freshman lawmaker Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, is author of the latest bid to establish an education savings account program. Administered through the state treasurer's office, it would grant as much as $5,083 per student directly to families. Here's a description of such programs from EdChoice, the deep-pocketed interest group promoting vouchers in Indiana and across the country:
“Education savings accounts allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds – often distributed to families via debit card – can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials.”
The accounts represent what Education Week identifies as the “Holy Grail to voucher proponents,” stripping control of state education spending from public schools to give it directly to parents.
Lauer's bill places restrictions on the program initially, but it's easy to see how eligibility would grow. Lawmakers in Arizona, who in 2011 established “empowerment scholarship accounts” for students with special needs, repeatedly expanded their program to make more students eligible. In 2017, they made a bid for universal vouchers, but the political outcry was great. A compromise plan removed eligibility guidelines, but set a cap on the number of accounts available. As soon as the bill was signed, the head of the Goldwater Institute boasted to voucher supporters that “we will get it lifted.”
But in November, Arizona voters soundly rejected an effort to make the problem-plagued program available to all students. An October audit by the Arizona auditor general found parents used the accounts for purchases at beauty supply retailers, sports apparel shops and computer technical support providers. Some made repeated attempts to withdraw cash from the cards, which is not allowed.
“The audit also concluded education officials did not properly monitor parents' spending, even after questionable purchases were denied, including on music albums deemed noneducational, Blu-ray movies, cosmetics and a transaction at a seasonal haunted house,” according to the Arizona Republic.
“Tonight's election result should tell elected officials one thing: Enough,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, co-founder of Arizona Save Our Schools, in a statement. “Enough of selling out our nation's future in service of some billionaire's ideological pet project. Fund our schools. Pay our teachers. Respect our choice of strong public schools.”
Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Phil Downs, who has closely tracked the financial effects of the voucher program on Indiana school districts, points out the cost of HB 1675 could double the cost of the state's voucher program.
“I would like to have it explained to me how this is fiscally conservative or responsible – at a time when per-student funding in the state has only grown at 10 percent over 10 years,” Downs said, noting a proposal to weaken the pension program for newly hired teachers. “I want to know how any of this shows that they value teachers at the level they claim they do.”
Previous attempts to establish education savings accounts have failed. But the choice-friendly General Assembly likely sees a non-election year as an opportunity to join Arizona, Mississippi, Tennessee and four other states in creating another voucher pathway. It's a program Hoosiers can't afford.