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School choice cost can’t be ignored


School choice cost can’t be ignored

Jan 27, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Niki Kelly
School choice cost can’t be ignored
A true discussion of universal school choice Indiana can't happen without an open dialogue on what it will cost. (Getty Images)

Lawmakers need to be honest and upfront about the long-term cost of expanding education scholarship accounts to all children between the age of 5 and 22 with no limitations based on family income, also known as universal school choice.

The program could easily eclipse $300 million a year (or half a billion if you include what is already being spent on the state’s need-based voucher program). But Republican supporters are being disingenuous at best about that.

A true dialogue can’t happen without acknowledging that while the program might start small it will grow steadily.

Senate Bill 305 is universal school choice and would basically make moot the need for vouchers going to institutions. Instead, the state will give parents around $7,500 per child to educate their child as they see fit outside of public school.

They can send their kids to private school, decide to homeschool, or sign up for online instruction. Frankly, they could spend the money on a trip to Disney. Because there is no accountability or auditing in the bill.

The fiscal analysis says it “will likely increase state expenditures” but doesn’t explicitly name a cost, other than referencing the current state appropriation of $10 million annually.

That is the same number that the bill’s author, Lebanon Republican Sen. Brian Buchanan, used repeatedly during a recent committee hearing. He estimates that money could fund 1,300 accounts.

I have always praised the Legislative Services Agency for thorough fiscal reports on bills. That is why I was stunned to see such an incomplete fiscal for this bill beyond saying “students who are currently homeschooled or attending a nonpublic school without a Choice Scholarship, but would now switch to the ESA, would increase state expenditures by a much larger amount.”

How many kids are we talking? There was absolutely no attempt to quantify the potential cost of the program. So, Indiana Capital Chronicle did it for you instead.

The state already spends around $240 million a year on vouchers for 44,000 private school students. Those costs and students would presumably shift over to ESA’s, though no one is discussing how or why the two programs would even co-exist.

But there are nearly 88,000 students enrolled in nonpublic schools, according to an Indiana Department of Education analysis. The National Center for Education Statistics puts that number at more than 115,000.

If 50,000 of those remaining students received an ESA — why wouldn’t they? It’s free money to even incredibly wealthy parents — the annual cost would be around $375 million.

There is no reason to pass a bill making more than 1.12 million children in Indiana eligible for an education scholarship account if only 1,300 are going to get it. The ultimate plan is to provide this for everyone, and it is pure negligence to not debate the cost and what it means to taxpayers in this state.

As of this writing, the bill was amended to limit eligibility to the same income guidelines as the voucher program and to keep half of the appropriation for children with disabilities, whom the program was initially created to help.

Let’s hope the Senate Appropriations Committee – where the bill heads next – has a more robust discussion on cost because all I hear are crickets.