March 10, 2023

Potentially ‘historic’ session could see major expansion to school choice

By Victoria Arthur

The state budget proposal recently passed by the Indiana House of Representatives would put school choice within reach of nearly all Hoosier families, but advocates are preparing for a more challenging path in the Senate.

Proposed changes include increasing the income eligibility for families to participate in the Choice Scholarship Program (more commonly known as the voucher program) and the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, both of which made Indiana a pioneer in school choice more than a decade ago. The legislation would also remove other obstacles that have kept some families from taking advantage of school choice opportunities.

While critics have been outspoken about any further expansion to school choice in Indiana, proponents say that the two-year budget outlined in House Bill 1001 would benefit all students and families statewide.

“The 2023 legislative session has the potential to be another historic one for education—not only for school choice, but for K-12 education in general,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA), which represents the state’s more than 400 non-public schools, including Indiana’s 175 Catholic schools. “It’s important that we look at the total picture.”

Nearly half of the more than $43 billion proposed state budget is allocated to K-12 education, with the vast majority going to support public schools. Under the proposal, the percentage of total K-12 spending on students in Indiana’s non-public schools through choice scholarships would increase from the current 3.7% to 5.9% in fiscal year 2024 and 6.6% in fiscal year 2025. However, Elcesser points out that students taking advantage of choice scholarships in non-public schools reflect more than 7% of students statewide.

House Bill 1001, primarily authored by Rep. Jeff Thompson (R-Lizton), would increase the financial eligibility for school choice from the current 300% of the federal free and reduced lunch program income qualification to 400%. That amounts to a household income of approximately $220,000 for a family of four.

Another component of the legislation is the removal of the so-called “tracks” or “pathways” to qualifying for school choice that have kept many families from participating even if they have met financial eligibility guidelines.

“In addition to the financial eligibility piece, families have had to meet one of eight or nine tracks to eligibility, which I refer to as hoops,” Elcesser said. “These are obstacles that prevent families from participating in the program, and we have been working to eliminate them.”

These include requiring a student to have spent two semesters in a public school, or to live in a school district with a grade of “F” as determined by the state. In addition to removing those requirements, the budget passed by the House would expand school choice access to all kindergartners. Currently, a kindergartner in Indiana must meet certain guidelines to qualify, such as an older sibling participating in a choice program.

The bill passed the House 66-29 on a party-line vote, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats opposed. Now at the midpoint of this session, the bill has moved to the Senate chamber.

The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) has stood in support of House Bill 1001 and will continue to track it.

“This legislation would help so many more families send their children to the schools they believe will best meet their needs,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “Every family is unique, and even the highest quality public school may not be the best choice for a particular family and their individual situation. We always support what is best for the child, and families are best at making those decisions.”

The ICC and the INPEA were key members of the coalition that led to the groundbreaking school choice legislation signed into law in 2011. While Indiana is still considered a trailblazer in school choice, some other states already have universal school choice, which would allow all students to receive public funding to attend the school of their choosing.

“With universal choice, anybody is eligible,” Elcesser said. “In universal choice states, anyone can take a percentage of their tax dollars and take it to a public school, a charter school or a non-public school.”

The income eligibility was last increased by the legislature in 2021, on the 10th anniversary of school choice in Indiana.

“[Lawmakers] are also looking at increasing state tuition support for all students, which would positively impact the public schools significantly, but that would indirectly support the Choice program because it’s based on that state tuition support,” Elcesser continued.

Now that the bill has moved to the Senate, school choice advocates say they may face an uphill battle.

“Historically, the House has been more supportive of implementing and expanding the choice program,” Elcesser said. “Some leaders in the Senate this year have been outspoken [opponents] of the choice expansion.”

To build additional public support for the legislation, the INPEA and the Institute for Quality Education (IQE), another organization that has played a key role in Indiana’s school choice efforts, are planning a series of rallies across the state. The events, titled “Share the Vision: School Choice for All,” will be held this month and next month in South Bend, Fort Wayne, northwest Indiana and Evansville.

“The whole focus is to tell the good news of school choice and how it’s impacting families and students—and to engage folks in the legislative process,” Elcesser said.

Betsy Wiley, executive director of IQE, shares this vision.

“These events are for school leaders, families, community leaders and anyone with an interest in school choice to boost the enthusiasm as we head into the last couple of months of the legislative session,” Wiley said.

The longtime school choice advocate said that her ultimate goal is to see Indiana implement universal school choice.

“I think the bill that came out of the House is yet another step forward to getting universal choice for students in Indiana, but it’s not there yet,” Wiley said. “Indiana was one of the first states to offer choice, but a number of states are jumping right past us. I’d love to see us continue to lead in this arena.”

To get involved in the advocacy efforts of the INPEA, visit The website includes access to podcasts, research data, position papers, a legislative action center and other information concerning non-public schools and their mission.

To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.

(Victoria Arthur, a member of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus [Little Flower] Parish in Indianapolis, is a correspondent for The Criterion.) †

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