As Indiana preps for near-universal school choice, the program has already grown

Students raise their hands in a classroom. (Credit: Arthur Krijgsman)

Eligibility for Indiana’s school choice voucher program is poised to dramatically increase next school year, enabling roughly 97% of students to use state money to attend private schools, according to school choice advocates.

State lawmakers have slowly expanded the program since they implemented it more than a decade ago. The state released its annual school choice report last month which provides insight into where the program stands ahead of arguably its largest expansion to date.

Already, between the 2021-2022 school year and the 2022-2023 school year, the cost to state taxpayers for the program grew by 30%, the report shows. That’s before the latest eligibility expansion goes into effect. 

The 2022-2023 school year was the state’s largest increase in the number of students claiming vouchers since the 2014-2015 school year. 

What’s changing?

This past school year, a family of four had to earn around $154,000 per year or less for a student to qualify to receive state money to attend a private school. In the two-year state budget passed in April, lawmakers expanded the eligibility to allow those making 400% of the income required to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches to participate in the school choice program. 

Likewise, state lawmakers simplified eligibility by removing other requirements. 

That means a family of four earning up to $220,000 per year will qualify this upcoming year, including students who have already been attending private school on their family’s own dime. Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice, called Indiana’s program “effectively universal.” 

“It’s unfair to pay twice, once in taxes and once in tuition,” Enlow said. “[The new policy has] basically said to almost every parent in the state of Indiana that we trust your choices.”

Costs for the program are expected to balloon by more than 70% in the first year. By fiscal year 2025, the state will spend an estimated $600 million on vouchers per year.

Here’s how parents can apply for the vouchers. The new eligibility requirements don’t kick in until the end of June. 

Democrats and public school advocates expressed concerns during the legislative session that the expansion siphons away dollars that otherwise would be going toward the traditional public school system. In the two-year budget, the overall spend on school vouchers is expanding far more rapidly than the spend for traditional public schools, despite inflation. 

Other opponents of school choice stress that private schools aren’t beholden to the same standards as traditional public schools, often are religious and don’t have to accept every student. 

“Man, kids whose families make $220,000 a year, do you think they really need us to help them go to private school?” Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor asked on the last day of the legislative session. “I’m just flabbergasted at how we continue to go down this path.” 

Still, the House Republican caucus, which championed the expansion, philosophically believes that parents should be able to choose where to send their students and that state money should follow the student wherever they go. 

Who is already participating?

Roughly 53,000 students used state-funded vouchers during the 2022-2023 school year, an increase of 20% from the prior school year. The state estimates that number will almost double by 2025 under the new eligibility requirements. 

Right now, fewer than 5% of Indiana students rely on vouchers. 

On average, a student using a voucher is white, has never attended a public school and lives in metropolitan areas of the state. 

The program is increasingly likely to benefit white students who come from families with higher incomes, the report shows. Between the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years, the percentage of voucher students who are white grew, while the percentage of voucher students who are Black decreased. (For now, the opposite is happening across Indiana’s entire education system).

Meanwhile, the average household income is just under $82,000 for those who applied using household income, an increase of more than $13,000 from the prior school year. A little more than a quarter of students who applied using their incomes come from households with incomes below $50,000. 

What’s next?

The budget was a step toward fully funded universal school choice, but more changes could be in the pipeline years down the road. Two other states have funded universal school choice, and the General Assembly has proven it’s open to an expansion when it approved the state budget by a wide margin. 

Any additional expansion would likely occur during the next budget cycle in 2025 when a new governor is in the Statehouse. Republican gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Eric Doden and Sen. Mike Braun have voiced their support for universal school choice. 

Jennifer McCormick, the only Democrat to enter the race, has indicated Indiana has gone too far and vouchers are “expanding at a pace that is very concerning.” 

Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or email her at [email protected]

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Header image: Students raise their hands in a classroom. (Credit: Arthur Krijgsman)