Indiana Catholic Conference
Victoria Arthur
March 7, 2023 // National

Potentially ‘Historic’ Session Could See Major Expansion to School Choice

Indiana Catholic Conference
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 forward 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 percent to 5.9 percent in fiscal year 2024 and 6.6 percent in fiscal year 2025. However, Elcesser points out that students taking advantage of choice scholarships in non-public schools reflect more than 7 percent 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 percent of the federal free and reduced lunch program income qualification to 400 percent. That amounts to a household income of approximately $220,000 for a family of four.

The bill passed the House 66-29 on a party-line vote on Feb. 23, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats opposed. Now at the midpoint of this long legislative session, held every two years with the overarching purpose of crafting the state budget, the measure has moved to the Senate for debate.

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, for example, 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 kindergarteners. Currently, a kindergartener in Indiana has to meet certain guidelines to qualify, such as an older sibling participating in a choice program.

“There is no reason why kindergarteners shouldn’t be eligible for school choice universally,” Elcesser said.

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

“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 by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels. And while Indiana is still considered a trailblazer in school choice, some other states have now moved ahead in this arena.

Florida, for example, is currently seeking to join Arizona, Utah, and a handful of other states in implementing 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.

“When choice was first implemented in Indiana, the initial focus was making sure that folks who absolutely cannot afford choice, to give them that opportunity to have different options of where their kids could be educated,” he continued. “As that program has been implemented successfully through the past 12 years and has been well received by families and by schools, families are asking the question, ‘Why can’t a small percentage of my state income tax dollars be used for children to be able to select a private school of their choice no matter what their family’s income or situation is?’”

The income eligibility was last increased by the legislature in 2021, on the 10th anniversary of school choice in Indiana. At that time, lawmakers also eliminated tiered amounts of voucher support that the Choice Scholarship had operated upon. Now, all students receive a 90 percent voucher.

“(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 said.

Now that the budget discussions have 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. “There has always been a little more resistance in the Senate to go as big as the House goes in terms of expansion. Some leaders in the Senate this year have been outspoken (opponents) of the choice expansion. And that’s why we see some big challenges over there.”

To build additional public support for the legislation, the INPEA and a key partner are planning a series of rallies across the state. The events, entitled “Share the Vision: School Choice for All,” will be held this month and next in South Bend, Fort Wayne, Evansville, and Highland. They will be co-hosted by the Institute for Quality Education, another organization that has played a key role in Indiana’s school choice efforts from their inception.

The “Share the Vision: School Choice for All” rallies are scheduled as follows:

March 16, Bishop Dwenger High School, Fort Wayne, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 21, Saint Joseph High School, South Bend, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

April 3, Good Shepherd Catholic School, Evansville, 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

April 14, Wicker Park Community Center, Highland, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“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. “Above all, we want people to share with their elected representatives the impact that these programs have had on children and families across the state of Indiana.”

Betsy Wiley of the Institute for Quality Education shared that 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,” said Wiley, Executive Director of the organization. “There will be a call to action and multiple ways that people can get involved and let lawmakers know that they support school choice and want to see it expanded so that every student in Indiana could take advantage of it.”

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.

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