Bill would expand voucher program with mid-year school switch

A bill that would allow students to receive a school voucher for the spring semester of a current school year—and more easily allow them to switch schools mid-year— is advancing in the Indiana General Assembly, with some Senate Republicans saying the bill would help expelled students and dropouts.

Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, said he proposed the bill to help The Crossing, a private alternative school with several campuses across Indiana, serve troubled students during the second semester.

“It’s such an obvious win for kids,” Yoder said. “What’s so harmful about the state giving those kids a voucher so they can actually be successful? These kids end up being productive citizens and making something of their lives. All I’m trying to do is help kids get back to school.”

Vouchers are “choice scholarships” which use taxpayer dollars to help families pay to attend private schools. The controversial program has expanded rapidly in Indiana since it started in the 2011-12 school year.

The bill could cost the state $2.1 million if 1,000 students take advantage of the spring-semester provision, according to the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency.

But some public education advocates are railing against the bill as an unnecessary expansion of the state’s school voucher system.

Indiana Coalition for Public Education lobbyist Joel Hand said his issue with the bill is that it doesn’t limit second-semester enrollment to just students who have dropped out or been expelled.

“There’s no provision in the bill that limits the extension of the voucher program just to those types of students,” Hand said. “This would be a very wide-open expansion of the voucher law.”

The bill would also remove the requirement that a voucher student pay tuition for the remainder of a school year at the first school, if the student leaves and enrolls in another eligible school.

The bill last week passed out of the Senate Education Committee, 9-1, with the only vote against the bill coming from Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington. Democratic Sens. Earline Rogers and Frank Mrvan supported the bill.

Stoops said he would be inclined to support the bill if it was more narrowly focused toward helping expelled students and dropouts.

“The bill may be too broad, allowing students to change schools midway through the year,” Stoops said. “If they drop out, then we want them back in school, and there should be some incentives for other types of schools to pick that student up and keep them moving forward.”

But Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he thinks that provision should apply to everyone.

“For some kids, it’s not working out in the first semester and they are not doing well and they think a change of scenery would help them do better,” Kruse said. “It’s better for them to move on.”

There’s also disagreement about how much the bill would cost, despite the LSA’s projection of $2.1 million.

Yoder said he believes it will cost less.

“That’s LSA’s worst-case scenario,” Yoder said. “Most kids don’t jump schools in the middle of the year.”

But Hand pointed to the voucher program’s expansive growth as a sign that the cost could end up being higher.

About 32,954 students are receiving a voucher grant of about $4,132 this year. In 2011-12, just 3,911 students used a choice scholarship.

“That could be a pretty conservative estimate based on how we’ve seen the voucher program grow,” Hand said.

The bill is scheduled to be revisited Thursday in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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