During a 5 1/2-hour marathon hearing Thursday evening, more than 50 people — family members, school administrators, public school advocates and others — spoke on proposed school funding measures, including voucher expansion and education scholarship accounts.

The Indiana Senate School Funding Subcommittee began meeting at 4:30 and the session continued until around 10 p.m. Several people waited hours to testify, as there was no specific start time for the hearing — only that it would begin 15 minutes after the end of the full Senate session in the afternoon.

The subcommittee took no action, but members at times challenged the comments of speakers critical of voucher expansion.

Those who attended the hearing advocated for their diverse points of view, including those who favor voucher expansion and those who oppose it, saying that expansion comes at the expense of public schools.

According to state estimates, the voucher expansion and education scholarship accounts will cost $144 million over two years, nearly 40% of the funding increase proposed for K-12 schools.

All those attending and speaking are “bound with a common passion of doing what’s best for students,” said Robert Taylor, associate director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, near the end of the hearing.

But he described the proposed expansion of the voucher program as “too much, too fast.”

The proposed budget bill would allow more families to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to send their children to private school.

Eligibility would expand to include a family of four earning $145,000 annually, about double that of the state’s median family income, and a family of five with annual income of $170,000.

Also, income tiers within the program would be eliminated, awarding all participating students the maximum award — 90% of the amount the state would have provided to the home public school district.

In the big picture, there is never enough funds to meet all the needs, whether it’s education, law enforcement, public health or social services, Taylor said. “We appreciate what you are confronted with on a daily basis to address the issue of funding.”

Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, commended legislators for the current 2019-21 biennial budget, which was “a very good budget for K-12 education and it was a very good budget for public education,” with nearly a 4% increase across all funding categories for K-12 education.

It included a 2.5% increase in tuition support each year and it paid down teacher pension obligations, freeing up money for districts to improve teacher pay.

“We’re here to try to build on that momentum for the next two years,” Spradlin said. School boards have done their part. According to the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, 58,616 teachers [94%] received an average pay raise of $2,160 for 2019-20. The prior year, the pay raise averaged $1,299.

But the need for improved school funding continues, Spradlin said. Indiana’s ranking in per-pupil funding has fallen to 39th in the country.

Joel Hand, representing the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, pointed to Indiana’s Constitution, which states, “It shall be the duty of the General Assembly ... to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of common schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”

Hand told legislators, “Your constitutional duty is to fund that system of common schools — aka public schools.” As far as private school vouchers and Educational Scholarship Accounts, “None of those fall within what is your constitutional duty.”

Public schools educate 94% percent of Indiana students, and, “That should be he priority of this General Assembly,” Hand said.

But others attending voiced strong support for voucher expansion, including Joe Miller, principal at St. Adalbert Grade School in South Bend. “This program has been very good and any expansion of the access and amount of resources available is in my opinion a good idea,” he said.

The school has 230 students, with 99% Latino and 100% on free/reduced lunch. Seventy percent of students are English language learners, and more than 90% of families use vouchers.

The school is on South Bend’s west side, an area of high crime, gang activities and a high dropout rate, he said. Most of the schools in that area rate poorly in the state’s accountability system.

“Our families are able to choose us thanks to the Indiana School Choice Scholarship program,” Miller said. “They choose us because we are safe, caring, academically challenging and supportive.”

One family sent all six children to the school using vouchers; the oldest son graduated from Ball State two years ago, and another sibling will graduate from IUPUI in spring.

With voucher expansion, more families could be served, and for some families, it means their children can remain in the school. For some families, the 50% or 70% scholarships leave too much of a gap and they can’t afford to make up the difference in full tuition costs, Miller said.

Mike McClain, principal of Sacred Heart School in Warsaw, also supported expansion of the voucher program. The school has a K-6 enrollment of about 120 students, with 30% English language learners and 40% receiving vouchers.

“We’ve been able to help so many underprivileged and underserved kids thanks to the Choice Scholarship program,” he said. Voucher expansion would provide middle-class families with more options.

Voucher expansion and Educational Scholarship Accounts are part of House Bill 1005, which was approved by the House in February. House Republican leaders also inserted identical voucher and ESA language in the two-year state budget.

The Senate is now considering the two-year, $36 billion budget bill; it was referred to the committee on Appropriations.
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