By Brigid Curtis Ayer
INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers who celebrated School Choice Week at the Statehouse during the last week of January have a reason to cheer. A proposal to increase access to Indiana’s Choice Scholarship program has advanced in the State Senate.
Senate Bill 334, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, would add a second opportunity to access a Choice Scholarship during the school year. The bill also reduces the endorsement signature requirement from multiple times per year, to a once per year signature endorsement on the scholarship checks.
The bill passed the Senate Appropriations panel, 9-1, and moves to the Senate floor for further consideration.
“Simply put, the bill provides the ability for children to receive a voucher for the spring semester of school,” said Yoder. “Under current law, students have to receive the voucher in the fall and if anyone wants to attend a nonpublic school at any other time during that school year, they are stuck waiting until the next school year.”
Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference who supports the legislation said, “We believe parents should have the choice of where they send their children to school. If they are income eligible, this bill gives them access to use the scholarship twice per year. The regulatory streamlining portion of the bill will reduce the paperwork in half since school staff will not have to go through the signature collection repeatedly, but only once per school year.”
Yoder said this issue became important to him because of a faith-based group called the Crossing School of Business and Entrepreneurship. Yoder explains that the alternative high school program serves at-risk students age 14-20 who dropped out of school or were expelled. Yoder described the Crossing’s mission as “very near and dear” to his heart. He said the goal is to try to get at-risk students back into school to finish their education. Yoder said he found that these kids are expelled or drop out of school, and by the time they learn about the Crossing, the scholarship date has passed making them ineligible for the scholarship until next year. Yoder said that given the troubles experienced by this population, waiting six to eight months to return to school could result in incarceration or death for some.
The legislation would assist not only children wanting to attend the Crossing, but would open the door to all students that need a change mid-year to access a scholarship.
John Elcesser, executive director for the Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA), who supports the bill said, “Almost every year I get calls from principals who have been approached by families wanting to enroll at the semester point, and they need a scholarship for that to be possible.”
He said, “They found that out months into the school year that the choice they made was not the right fit for their son or daughter and they want to explore other options.” He explained that the Choice Scholarship deadline has passed by then.
Elcesser said that there are a variety of reasons a child needs a scholarship mid-year. “Sometimes it’s an academic need. Sometimes it’s a bullying situation. It could be for number of other reasons why a student needs to change schools,” said Elcesser. “This bill would make the scholarship available to them.”
Also supporting the bill includes Carol Oslander representing the Indiana Chamber of Commerce who said that in addition to being in favor of school choice in general, the bill ensures that the money follows the child.
Some of the opponents of the bill including Gail Zeheralis, representing Indiana State Teacher’s Association and Joel Hand of the Indiana Coalition for Public schools raised concerns about the equity between nonpublic and public schools since public schools have more regulations that they have to adhere to than do nonpublic schools.
For fiscal year 2016 about 32,954 students are receiving an average Choice Scholarship grant of about $4,132 per student, according to Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan research arm for lawmakers. For the school year 2015-16, there are 316 participating schools in the Choice Scholarship Program.
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a national school choice nonprofit based in Indianapolis, reports on the scope of school choice around the country. Currently, there are 59 school choice programs on the books in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program is the nation’s largest voucher program in terms of participation. Nationwide, there are 166,500 students receiving a school choice voucher.
Tebbe said he expects the bill will pass the Senate. If the bill passes the Senate, it will move to the Indiana House of Representatives for debate and further consideration.
As the ICC tracks bills, the ICC posts legislative update on its Web page. To receive legislative updates via email pushes, join the Indiana Catholic Action Network (ICAN). These and other public policy resources are available at www.indianacc.org.
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