A House education bill knocked by critics as reducing accountability for Indiana voucher schools cleared a Senate panel Wednesday.
Provisions in a bill by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, create a way for private schools to immediately begin accepting voucher students, rather than waiting one year, and let failing voucher schools appeal to the state school board for a delay in consequences.
"When the idea of vouchers was sold to Indiana, it was this way for students to get away from failing schools. This provision allows for those failing schools to continue without the same expectations or accountability," said Keith Gambill, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.
Indiana's voucher program, which is one of the nation's largest, allows parents to use public education funds to send their children to non-public schools. According to the Indiana Department of Education, more than 34,000 students used vouchers this school year—far more than the roughly 3,900 students who used them in 2011-12, the program's first year.
Under current law, a private school that accepts vouchers and receives failing grades—a "D'' or "F," under the state's A-F grading system—for two years is unable to accept new voucher students until they improve their grade.
Behning's proposal would allow the state school board to delay that consequence for one school year if a private school shows a majority of its students improved academically during the previous year.
Public school supporters argue the bill also creates a potential for failing schools to not just retain voucher students—but increase that population.
"They have a chance, they have a good chance. They only have to bring their grade up to a C—could be one step or two steps—in order to get back into the ability to accept new voucher students," said Sally Sloan, a lobbyist for Indiana's branch of the American Federation of Teachers. "I do not think that needs to change."
Groups that advocate for voucher schools say they aren't trying to avoid accountability from the state.
Behning and others have said they see the proposal as a way to allow flexibility in unique circumstances, subject to the opinion of the state school board.
"It simply provides the chance for a second look at the situation, if it merits it, by the state board," said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. "The A to F metric tells part of the story; it doesn't tell the whole story."
The bill passed 7-4 Wednesday, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposing the measure. It heads to the full Senate.
Approved amendments were largely unrelated to the bill's voucher provisions. Changes call for a study of adult literacy in the state, a review of graduation cohorts and a report on the performance of high-mobility schools in the state, among other things.