In recent weeks, thanks to the report of the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission, Hoosiers have learned how woefully inadequate Indiana teacher salaries are in comparison to those of neighboring states and the rest of the country.
As Indiana prepared for the 2021 session of the General Assembly where the state budget for the next two years will be set, Gov. Eric Holcomb and leaders for the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate stated their commitment to maintaining public school funding at current levels and said they want to see increases in teacher salaries. These are good intentions, especially given the significant loss of state revenue in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.
While Republicans crow about the current budget's education funding being the largest in history, they do not mention that Indiana ranked last in the nation for teacher salary growth since 2000. They do not mention that Indiana per-pupil spending is the lowest in the Midwest and 38th in the nation. Nor do they acknowledge that the education portion of the entire state budget is 2% less than it was seven years ago.
Despite this welcome support for maintaining school funding and raising teacher pay, at the same time Republican leaders are gearing up to divert even more state funds by expanding the private school voucher program. In House Bill 1093, they propose removing all financial restrictions for families to qualify for a private school voucher.
Existing vouchers cost Indiana $172.8 million in the 2019-20 school year, depriving every Indiana public school system of $172 per student. If your local public school district serves 6,000 students, it's losing more than $1 million a year. If your school district serves 20,000 students, it's losing more than $3 million annually.
The Legislative Services Agency analysis of HB1093 acknowledges that if the bill causes home-schooled or private school students without a Choice Scholarship to qualify for a voucher, state expenditures will increase.
More than 36,000 private and religious school students received vouchers in the 2018-19 school year. Nearly 41,000 students attending these same private and religious schools do not currently use a voucher. If the income requirements are removed, the number of students already in these schools qualifying for vouchers could more than double. The additional cost for taxpayers would be enormous.
Imagine the voucher expense doubling to $345.6 million annually. If the state education budget stays the same, that additional $172.8 million will be skimmed off the top of the education budget resulting in the loss of another $172 per student for every public school in the state.
Not only would removing the income cap for vouchers take even more money away from public schools, all taxpayers, including low-income taxpayers, would be paying the tuition bill for wealthy families with students already in private schools.
There is no other way to interpret this; it is designed to divert state dollars from the poorest and neediest of public school students to give to the wealthiest. It is wrong to do this when state revenue is in sharp decline and many families are facing job loss, reduced income and possibly eviction. If the state education budget diverts an additional $172.8 million a year from public schools, how can it possibly do anything to increase teacher salaries?
Every public school family and every business-conscious member of the public should protest and discourage legislators from diverting scarce and needed public education funding to expand voucher eligibility.
Tony Lux is a retired Indiana public school superintendent and a board member of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.