Public money, private purchases: the complicated arrangement between Tech Trep, homeschoolers, and a rural Indiana school district
Outschool LEGO classes and 3D printers. Routers, computers, and Disney+ and Hulu subscriptions. Ballet lessons and a model train. These are just a few of the items that homeschoolers are buying with state funds through a new program run by a Utah-based company in collaboration with an Indiana public school district.
Here’s how it works, as reported by Chalkbeat Indiana and education blogger Steve Hinnefeld. Tech Trep, the Utah company, advertises its services to homeschoolers. Cloverdale Community Schools, the Indiana public school district that partners with Tech Trep, receives tuition support from the state for each kid who enrolls. Cloverdale keeps 20% of the state funding and passes the rest to Tech Trep. Of that, families can use a point system to order up to $1,700 worth of educational items or services per child.
Meanwhile, Indiana’s refusal to fund public school textbooks means that parents and guardians of children in public school must pay to “rent” basic curricular materials such as books and technology—including parents who send their kids to Cloverdale's public schools. For a family with three children in public school, that can mean an annual expenditure of over $500. And public school teachers routinely pay out of pocket to decorate their classrooms and to provide books, Kleenex, snacks, and writing utensils for their students. In the pandemic, some public school staff have needed to purchase their own PPE.
Yet somehow Indiana has money to spare when it comes to private educational expenditures, even when “educational” is loosely defined.
A recent discussion in a private Facebook group for Tech Trep families and others interested in joining Tech Trep made it clear that some enrollees are there just to make purchases with state money. Speaking of other Tech Trep services, one commenter said “I use NONE of TT resources. It’s nice that they are there if I need them but I don’t.” The parent continued, “I school my children on my own and at home. I consider that homeschooling. Tech Trep calls it distance learning and that works legally for them...”
Why is this legal?
Resources invested in public schools benefit all the kids in a community across years. Whether such dollars pay for online math textbooks, school playgrounds, or science labs, an elected board has the responsibility of making sure resources are fairly distributed across school populations. But a state handout to homeschoolers is different. A model train may benefit one child. A Netflix subscription may entertain a home. But does Indiana really want to pay Cloverdale, a rural school district, to launder state funds so that homeschoolers can purchase Netflix subscriptions and trips to the zoo, while many public school districts struggle to pay and retain teachers, maintain and repair school buildings, and offer high-quality curricular materials that they hope their parents and caregivers can pay for?
Lots of public school families would benefit from state-subsidized private lessons, LEGO bricks, and personal computers. Is Indiana ready to extend those benefits to all? Or perhaps more on point: Is Indiana actually preparing to substitute those kinds of à la carte purchases for the structured education and opportunities provided in public school classrooms? While Senate GOP leaders have backpedaled a bit on the concept of a new choice path to benefit some students, education scholarship accounts (ESAs) are still being considered this legislative session. The bizarrely under-the-radar Tech Trep arrangement, with its lack of oversight, may be providing a glimpse of the Wild West of ESAs—a program which wouldn’t even be administered by the Indiana Department of Education, but would fall under the purview of the state treasurer.
Lots of public school families would benefit from state-subsidized private lessons, LEGO bricks, and personal computers. Is Indiana ready to extend those benefits to all? Is Indiana actually preparing to substitute those kinds of à la carte purchases for the structured education and opportunities provided in public school classrooms?
How long will one small rural school district and an out-of-state business be able to profit off sending state money to homeschooling families for private purchases, as the Indiana Association of Home Educators pointed out back in October? For shame, Indiana. It’s time to shut this “program” down.
P.S. In a legally dubious move (at least in Indiana), Tech Trep advertises to families in its order form that "New Technology items purchased 100% with state funds remain the property of the state for 3 years. Many families like to pay for part of the cost to be exempt from this rule and be able to keep the items at the end of the year. This year, you may privately purchase an Amazon gift card for approximately 10% of the cost of the item and give the gift card number to the person placing the order during the zoom meeting, so that we are only paying for 90% of the cost and you can keep the item at the end of the year as a surplus item."
Our public school districts have never offered that if we pay 10% up front, we can keep the iPads and laptops that we rent from the district through textbook/technology fees!
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.