February 5, 2016

School choice proposal advances in Senate during School Choice Week

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Indiana residents who celebrated School Choice Week at the Statehouse during the last week of January have a reason to cheer. A proposal to increase access to Indiana’s Choice Scholarship program has advanced in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 334, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, would add a second opportunity to access a Choice Scholarship during the school year.

The bill passed the Senate Appropriations panel by a 9-1 vote, and moves to the Senate floor for further consideration.

“Simply put, the bill provides the ability for children to receive a voucher for the spring semester of school,” Yoder said. “Under current law, students have to receive the voucher in the fall, and if anyone wants to attend a nonpublic school at any other time during that school year, they are stuck waiting until the next school year.”

Glenn Tebbe executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), who serves as the legislative and public policy spokesperson for the Church in Indiana, supports the legislation. “We believe parents should have the choice of where they send their children to school. If they are income eligible, this bill gives them access to use the scholarship twice per year. The regulatory streamlining portion of the bill will reduce the paperwork in half since school staff will not have to go through the signature collection repeatedly, but only once per school year.”

Yoder said this issue became important to him because of a faith-based group called Crossing School of Business and Entrepreneurship, which operates schools across Indiana. Yoder explained that the alternative high school program serves at-risk students ages 14-20 who dropped out of school or were expelled.

The senator described the Crossing’s mission as “very near and dear” to his heart. He said the goal is to try to get at-risk students back into school to finish their education. Yoder found out that these students are expelled or drop out of school, and by the time they learn about the Crossing, the scholarship date has passed, making them ineligible for the scholarship until next year. Yoder said that given the troubles experienced for this population, waiting 6-8 months to return to school could result in incarceration or even death for some.

The legislation would assist not only children wanting to attend the Crossing, but would open the door to all students that need a change midyear to access a scholarship.

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA), who supports the bill, said, “Almost every year, I get calls from principals who have been approached by families wanting to enroll at the semester point, and they need a scholarship for that to be possible. They found out months into the school year that the choice they made was not the right fit for their son or daughter, and they want to explore other options.” Unfortunately, by then, the Choice Scholarship deadline has passed, he added.

Elcesser said that there are a variety of reasons a child needs a scholarship midyear. “Sometimes it’s an academic need. Sometimes it’s a bullying situation. It could be for number of other reasons why a student needs to change schools,” he said. “This bill would make the scholarship available to them.”

Carol Oslander of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce also supports the bill. She said that in addition to being in favor of school choice in general, the bill ensures that the money follows the child.

Some of the opponents of the bill include Gail Zeheralis of the Indiana State Teacher’s Association and Joel Hand of the Indiana Coalition for Public Schools. They raised concerns about the equity between nonpublic and public schools because public schools have more regulations that they have to adhere to than do nonpublic schools.

According to Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan research firm for lawmakers, 32,954 students are receiving an average Choice Scholarship grant of about $4,132 per student for the 2016 fiscal year. For the 2015-16 school year, there are 316 schools participating in the Choice Scholarship Program.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a national school choice nonprofit based in Indianapolis, reports on the scope of school choice around the country. Currently, there are 59 school choice programs in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program is the nation’s largest voucher program in terms of participation. Nationwide, there are 166,500 students receiving a school choice voucher.

Tebbe said he expects the bill will pass the Senate. If the bill passes there, it moves to the Indiana House of Representatives for debate and further consideration.

As the ICC tracks bills, it posts legislative update on its Web page. To receive legislative updates via e-mail, join the Indiana Catholic Action Network (ICAN). These and other public policy resources are available at www.indianacc.org.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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