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The Journal Gazette

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017 8:14 am

A different choice

When school voucher supporters press lawmakers at School Choice Lobby Day and at a cocktail reception this evening, they’ll be pushing the Indiana Special Education Scholarship Account – a new tool that claims to target students with disabilities.

But Senate Bill 534 is more ambitious than it appears. The legislation sets the foundation for education savings accounts – direct grants to parents who agree not to enroll their children in public schools but instead spend their allotment of tax dollars on private schools, tutors and education products.

"Unlike a voucher, which can only be spent in a lump sum at a participating private school, an ESA can be used at any combination of educational providers the parent thinks best for his or her child, including at-home tutors, online learning, charter schools, private schools, educational therapy, and curricula," writes Inez Feltscher, a director at the American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive group that writes model bills for state legisltors. "ESAs open the door to a truly individualized, 21st-century education system for American children."

An education savings account bill was introduced in each of the last two years but failed to get a hearing in either session. Even in the voucher-friendly General Assembly, there are legislators aware of the growing strain on public schools. Voucher payments grew by 750 percent from 2011 to 2016, to $131.5 million spent last year alone.

So choice advocates are adopting an approach used in other states, laying the groundwork with a limited program easily expanded with small tweaks to the law. SB 534 gives administration of the proposed scholarship account program to the state treasurer.

It makes any Indiana student who is not enrolled in a public school or currently receiving a voucher eligible for a grant to cover the cost of special education services prescribed under the student’s Individualized Education Plan, a personalized document guiding instruction. Legislative Services Agency estimates an increase in state spending of $144 million to $206 million a year.

House Bill 1007 is another push for school choice, allowing the Indiana Department of Education to set up a "Course Access Program" that effectively bypasses classroom teachers in favor of computer courses. The Atlantic described course access programs in other states as "school choice on steroids."

Neither bill includes any mechanism for evaluating the effectiveness of the instruction covered at taxpayer expense, although the special education program requires the state to conduct a survey on parent satisfaction. But the real winners will be the out-of-state corporations, shareholders and investors in education products who stand to benefit from a massive influx of cash.

The voucher bill that lawmakers should approve is one that begins to require accountability of the schools that are already benefiting from Indiana’s free-wheeling choice program. House Bill 1228 would prohibit the use of a voucher at a school if its letter grade or whatever performance category the state might adopt is lower than the grade or category of the voucher student’s neighborhood school. Indiana’s school-grading system is worthless, but its defenders – in particular – should agree that it makes no sense to allow students to take tax dollars to an F-rated voucher school if they live in a neighborhood served by a better-rated public school.

The best way to observe this National School Choice Week is to improve Indiana’s choice offerings, not expand them.