The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, February 02, 2021 1:00 am


'Choice' cuts

Voucher expansion veers far from original intent

Fort Wayne has a parks system, supported primarily by property taxes. Most residents appreciate the parks, whether they use them or not, recognizing the benefits they afford the entire community. There are property owners, however, who don't use the parks and spend their own money to pay for health club memberships or country club dues.

Now, imagine some of those property owners decide the share of tax dollars they spend for city parks should instead be returned to them as a “park voucher,” available for the members-only clubs they prefer. Without an increase in the tax rate, the amount of money available for city parks would shrink.

That's the essence of Indiana's school voucher program, which shifts tax dollars from a public good to a private commodity under the clever name of “Choice Scholarships.” With a voucher framework firmly in place and many Indiana voters convinced “school choice” is a sacred right, the General Assembly's Republican supermajority is prepared to make its most audacious push yet to expand the program to wealthy Hoosiers.

House Bill 1005, with an estimated cost of $202 million over the next two years alone, will be heard in the House Education Committee at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The proposed bill expands the $172 million a year voucher program to allow a family of four earning as much as $145,000 a year to qualify for vouchers. Median household income in Indiana is about $60,000 a year.

The bill also eliminates income limits on the size of the voucher awards. Currently, a family of four earning up to $48,000 a year is limited to a voucher worth 90% of per-student state funding for the school corporation in which the family resides. At $60,000 a year in household income, the voucher drops to 70%. Four-person families earning up to $96,000 a year qualify for 50% of per-student funding.

But HB 1005 drops the income tiers even as it raises income eligibility. A family of four earning up to $109,000 would qualify for a 90% voucher in 2021-22. In 2022-23, eligibility rises to $145,000 a year for a 90% voucher. That translates to millions of tax dollars to parents who do not choose public schools but can afford tuition for their children.

When Betsy Wiley, head of the pro-voucher Institute for Quality Education, tells The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly that proponents want to “treat everybody the same way,” she's claiming a CEO like herself is entitled to the same amount of money for their child's education as a single parent working two minimum-wage jobs. And she believes it's perfectly acceptable to use those tax dollars at schools that are not accountable for their spending or subject to most regulations placed on public schools.

This is not about “choice” for students from low-income families. It's about requiring all taxpayers to pay private and parochial school tuition for parents who always intended to send their children to private or parochial schools. Sixty percent of voucher recipients have never attended a public school.

Public education advocate Vic Smith, a retired school superintendent, calls this year's school choice expansion the “most serious attack ever.”

“Taking advantage of the pandemic and reduced citizen access to the Statehouse, private education advocates in the House of Representatives are pushing to divert hundreds of millions in public funds to private and home schools and to establish in Indiana a radical new program called Education Savings Accounts that undermines the very concept of community public schools,” Smith writes.

The deep-pocketed campaign contributors who have driven Indiana's school privatization movement over the past two decades have succeeded in convincing legislators to support separate and unequal school systems. But just as “park vouchers” would benefit private businesses and clubs at the expense of our beautiful parks, the ever-expanding school voucher program drains support for Indiana's public schools and teachers. Tell your state representative, state senator and Gov. Eric Holcomb that HB 1005 is unacceptable in any form.

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