School voucher expansion rolled back in plan

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — A proposed expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program would be scaled back under the new state budget plan from state Senate Republicans, while still boosting the program’s spending by about 25%.

The two-year state spending plan endorsed by a Senate committee Thursday faces more negotiations over the next two weeks, with the top House Republican intent on pushing for bigger voucher changes that could add several thousand more students to the program.

The Senate’s budget proposal would increase overall school funding by 1.2% the first year and about 3% the second year, slightly more than a plan the Republican-dominated House endorsed in February.

The Senate plan also directs nearly $900 million in federal COVID-19 relief money toward several economic grant programs and one-time spending projects. It also drops a House-supported increase in the state’s cigarette tax while backing a new state tax on vaping products.

The Senate’s voucher plan is projected to cost an additional $51 million over the next two years — about one-eighth of the total $408 million more the budget would allocate toward K-12 funding — by adding about 4,600 students, or 13%, to the program. The House proposal was projected to cost $125 million with some 12,000 more voucher students.

Senate leaders had talked for weeks about limiting the voucher expansion cost.

“We felt that it was reasonable to increase it, but we wanted to maybe look at a more modest increase,” said Republican Sen. Eric Bassler of Washington.

Amid the voucher debate, Democratic senators lamented that the Republican spending plan did little to directly boost the state’s lagging teacher pay or take up recommendations from the teacher pay commission appointed by GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Senate budget writers reduced the school voucher expansion by allowing for a smaller increase in the family income eligibility, which now stands at roughly $96,000 a year for a family of four. The Senate would raise that limit to $110,000 a year, down from the House’s proposed cap of $145,000 in annual income.

Both plans would all those students to receive the full voucher amount, rather than the current tiered system that limits full vouchers to such families with incomes of about $48,000.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said House negotiators would be working to help senators “see the light” on the voucher expansion.

“I believe that parents should have a choice for their children and we will be consistent with that message at the negotiating table,” Huston said. “I would expect that we will be negotiating very aggressively around those provisions.”

The school voucher expansion has faced broad opposition from traditional public school supporters, with nearly 150 school boards across the state approving resolutions against it.

“We can’t get everything we want. We’ll lament anytime more money goes to choice scholarship vouchers,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. “Overall, I think the Senate’s done a nice job, shifting priorities and reprioritizing and balancing this budget to make sure K-12 public education benefits, as well, from the budget.”

The Senate didn’t embrace a new House-backed program allowing parents to directly spend state money on their child’s education expenses. Those education savings accounts, costing $19 million under the House plan, were cut to $3 million and limited to the families of children with special needs in the Senate budget.

Other provisions in the Senate budget plan direct to various programs about one-third of the $3 billion the state expects to receive from the latest federal coronavirus relief package. That includes $250 million toward broadband internet expansion grants, $150 million for a regional development program proposed by the governor, $150 million for physical health and mental health program, $60 million for small business grants and $25 million toward police agencies buying officer body cameras.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ryan Mishler, a Republican from Bremen, said decisions might be made on spending more of that money before the Legislature’s final budget vote in about two weeks.

“I don’t think we spent it all because we still don’t know what’s ahead,” Mishler said. “I don’t think that’s wise to spend all of it now. We may have some issues we don’t even know about coming down the road.”

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