As Indiana’s legislators look to make school vouchers for private school tuition accessible for even wealthier families, they are also considering another form of vouchers called “Education Scholarship Accounts” (ESAs). These would be equivalent to debit cards loaded annually with $5,000 to $7,000 (plus up to $9,100 for some special education students) that parents/guardians could spend on educational services in lieu of sending their kid(s) to a public school. House Bill 1005 would make ESAs available for special education students, foster students, and active military families, but just as voucher eligibility has been expanded over the years, we can expect the same for ESAs.
Here’s how ESAs grew in Arizona between 2012 and 2020:
While the ESA amount could be spent on private school tuition, it could also be used for therapy, transportation, school uniforms, and likely music lessons and sports camps. The language in HB 1005 is “qualified school, public school, or participating entity,” (p. 27, line 12), and the participating entities would be approved by the state treasurer. So what’s the hitch? If you are already homeschooling or paying private school tuition, free money probably sounds nice.
What are the problems with ESAs?
1. Diversion of funding from public school programs.
Creating ESAs is like waving cash in front of families to incentivize them to leave their public schools. It also gives state money to families who were already homeschooling or already in private school. Removing money from public school programs will weaken the public schools and charter schools on which 94% of Indiana’s students depend.
2. High costs for à la carte education.
As parents of high-need special ed students testified in education committee hearings (also here), the amount of funding the state proposes to provide through ESAs would be insufficient to purchase comprehensive services in the private education marketplace. Some children receive full-time one-on-one aides in public school, for instance, because public schools are required to provide a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Private schools have no such responsibility, and neither would a for-profit or nonprofit “participating entity.” Private entities could pocket state funds without fully meeting kids' needs, while public schools, which already don't get enough money for special education*, would be expected to provide full services with less.
Source (for average public school special ed expenses per pupil): Center on Reinventing Public Education report, “Ensuring All Students in Indiana Receive Their Fair Share of Funding.”
3. Lack of oversight.
The program would be overseen by the state treasurer rather than the Indiana Department of Education, and the bill expressly forbids government regulation of the schools/entities participating: It specifies that a state agency “may not in any way regulate the educational program of a nonpublic school that accepts money from an account under this article,” (p. 38, line 13).**
The public has an interest in the quality of the educational environment provided for children through state dollars. This begins with physical environment and infrastructure. Do the buildings meet the fire code and are they free of hazards such as lead paint or accessible toxic household cleaners? Is the drinking water clean? It extends to the psychological environment. Are children in safe and positive spaces free of manipulation and abuse? Under HB 1005, no state entity would have the responsibility to inquire.
Most centrally, though, the quality of the educational environment is bound up in curriculum. With HB 1005, no state entity would have the right to ascertain whether children are receiving a developmentally appropriate, challenging curriculum that adheres to state academic standards. The language of the bill appears to guarantee that state funds could be used for conversion therapy or religious instruction.
4. No requirement for a certified teacher.
In fact, HB 1005 prohibits the state from making any teacher or staff hiring requirements for participating schools or entities (page 38, line 17). So it sounds like the state could not even require nonaccredited schools to verify that a potential hire does not have a record as a child sex offender.
5. An environment ripe for scammers.
Because parents would be making the decisions about how to spend this money, service providers and vendors of curricular materials would advertise directly to parents. Many parents lack the knowledge and training to assess the quality of such programs and could be vulnerable to unscrupulous operators.
6. Incentivization of year-to-year rollover of dollars.
Parents could roll over as much as $2,000 per year. This means parents could spend as little as $3,000 on a child’s education in one year. What kind of education would a kid be getting for that sum?
7. Excessive administrative costs, or an invitation to fraud.
How will the state treasurer ensure that the money is actually spent on kids’ education? Either the treasurer will spend lots of time and money to ensure that participating entities are operating responsibly and that invoices are accurate for services truly rendered, or not. In the first case, taxpayers will be paying a huge amount for inefficient administration even as public schools are under pressure to consolidate and reduce administrative costs. In the second case, we will see an explosion of a free-for-all which will deplete state coffers while encouraging fraud and exploiting children.
Given Indiana’s record of lax oversight of charter schools, especially the virtual charter schools that have proven lucrative for their operators, a proliferation of fraud seems likely. And while legislators are the ones who will vote for HB 1005 (or the form of it included in the budget bill), it’s Indiana’s taxpayers who will foot the bill, and Indiana’s children who will pay.
"What special education students most need is for their public school special education services and general education classrooms to be adequately funded, to allow the time and attention and teacher expertise they need to be successful."
To improve education in Indiana, we need to reject ESAs and instead invest in the essential community infrastructure of public schools. As parent and attorney MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger says, "What special education students most need is for their public school special education services and general education classrooms to be adequately funded, to allow the time and attention and teacher expertise they need to be successful."
–Jenny Robinson and Keri Miksza
*Appendix A of the 2020 CRPE report shows how Indiana's special education funding lags that in Ohio, South Dakota, and New Orleans:
See also the Education Commission of the States' 50-state comparison of special education funding from March 2019.
**HB 1005 prohibits the state from regulating participating entities. An excerpt:
Chapter 5. Participating Entities
Sec. 1. It is the intent of the general assembly to honor the autonomy of nonpublic schools that choose and are authorized to become participating entities under this article. A nonpublic eligible school is not an agent of the state or federal government, and therefore: (1) the treasurer of state, state board, department, or any other state agency may not in any way regulate the educational program of a nonpublic school that accepts money from an account under this article, including the regulation of curriculum content, religious instruction or activities, classroom teaching, teacher and staff hiring requirements, and other activities carried out by the nonpublic school; (2) the creation of the program does not expand the regulatory authority of the state or the state's officers to impose additional regulation of nonpublic schools beyond those necessary to enforce the requirements of the program; and (3) an accredited nonpublic school that is a participating entity may provide for the educational needs of students without government control.
Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County (ICPE–Monroe County) advocates for all children to have high quality, equitable, well-funded schools that are subject to democratic oversight by their communities.
We are a nonpartisan and nonprofit group of parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and other community members of Monroe County and surrounding areas.