Indiana Senator Aims to Implement “School Choice” Overhaul by 2025

A prominent Republican state senator in Indiana is proposing a major overhaul of the state’s private school voucher system. The new proposal, known as Senate Bill 255, would replace the current Choice Scholarships program and other related programs with a grant program called the “Indiana Funding Students First Grant Program.” Unlike the current system which is income-based, this new grant program would be available to all Indiana families, regardless of income, allowing them to choose where their children receive their education.

Although the proposal will not be advanced in the current legislative session, discussions at the Statehouse on Thursday suggest that there is likely to be strong legislative momentum for the measure in 2025. The bill, authored by Senator Ryan Mishler, seeks to merge the existing special education-only Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) and the Career Scholarship Account (CSA) Program into the new grant program.

Under the new program, there would no longer be any income caps on the grants, and parents would be able to apply for an annual grant to cover various education expenses such as tuition, fees, exam fees, services for students with disabilities, transportation, tutoring costs, and extracurricular activities.

The existing students who are currently participating in the state’s choice programs would remain unaffected and continue to receive funding for their chosen schools. Senator Mishler stated that the bill is a work in progress and aims to give parents more flexibility in education. The goal is to start a discussion and gather information on the issues within the bill.

Introducing the Indiana Funding Students First Grant Program

The current draft of the bill includes a two-year pilot program, but Senator Mishler clarified that this will change in the next version of the bill. The proposed program would be administered by Indiana’s treasurer, with the aim of allowing parents to have greater control over education dollars and customized educational choices for their children.

“This bill is not a silver bullet that will fix all the problems with our education system. This bill is not a program that will take away from our existing public or private school systems. This bill is not an attempt to restrict, harm or limit homeschool families or how they choose to educate their children,” said Treasurer Daniel Elliott.

The pilot program estimates that implementing the new plan could increase state spending by approximately $46.5 million. However, the exact financial impacts and projections will depend on changes to the state’s funding formula and the number of students participating in the school choice programs.

Due to the significant financial impacts and the limited budget negotiations during the current short session, Senator Mishler’s proposal will remain on hold. In 2025, the measure will need approval from both the Senate education and appropriations committees before it could be passed to the House for further consideration. The stance of the opposite chamber on the proposal is currently unknown.

Much to be considered and discussed

Various groups, including the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, the Coalition for Indiana Growing and Suburban School Districts, and both the state superintendent and school boards associations, have expressed their neutrality on the bill. They are awaiting further discussions on funding mechanisms and the potential impacts on local school districts.

K-12 education expert Denny Costerison testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

During the Senate committee hearing, Senator Shelli Yoder raised concerns about the logistics and academic implications of students juggling multiple learning opportunities through the grants. Homeschool parents also spoke, urging lawmakers to ensure that the new grant program respects their autonomy in educating their children. Mishler assured them that their request would be honored.

However, Superintendent Donnie Bowsman cautioned that the grant program may lead to an increase in students leaving public schools, potentially at the expense of public school funding. Bowsman emphasized the need for clear parameters and guidance if state funding is involved.

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