Indiana Senate GOP not supporting school voucher expansion

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – A major expansion proposed for Indiana’s private school voucher program would be axed under the state budget plan advanced Thursday by state Senate Republicans.

That voucher expansion supported by House Republicans will be among several points of contentions as House and Senate budget leaders work to reach an agreement on a new two-year state budget before the end of April.

The Senate GOP plan also drops a House push to speed up planned cuts to the state’s personal income tax rates that were approved last year.

Senate Republicans proposed increasing general K-12 school funding by about 4.6% in each of the next two years. That $1.1 billion boost is less than the House endorsed in February, but House Republicans would direct more than $500 million to the voucher program expansion, or nearly one-third of their total proposed school funding increase.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ryan Mishler said the Senate proposal would keep the current family income limits to qualify for state money toward private school tuition.

The House plan centers on raising the family income limit from the current 300% of income eligibility for the federal free or reduced-price meals program to a 400% cap. That would boost the income limit for a family of four from the current $154,000 to $220,000. It would also continue a major program expansion that Republican lawmakers started in 2021 by raising that family size’s maximum income for a full voucher payment from the $48,000 cap previously in place.

The broader eligibility provisions were projected to grow the voucher program from the current 53,500 students to some 95,000 students in two years- and nearly double the state money spent on the program.

That higher cost is the Senate’s top concern, said Mishler, a Republican from Mishawaka.

“I don’t think there’s an issue whether we have vouchers or not, I mean we’re fine with that,” Mishler said. “I think we just have to figure out is it the 300% or the 400%, what should the eligibility be?”

Several hundred teachers attended a Statehouse rally on Thursday calling for increased school funding, and their cheers and chants could be heard inside a meeting room as the Senate committee voted to endorse the budget plan outlined by Mishler.

The state’s teachers’ unions and other public school organizations have opposed the voucher expansion, arguing that it drains money from traditional public schools and hurts efforts to boost Indiana’s lagging teacher pay.

“Ninety-plus percent of all Hoosier families send their students to our traditional public schools and we have to make sure that they’re funded properly,” Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said. “With the cost-of-living changes that have occurred the past couple of years, we’re going to have people going backwards if we’re not careful.”

The Senate plan also includes a request from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to eliminate school material and textbook rental fees charged to families – a step estimated to cost about $120 million a year. School organizations had opposed the House proposal that prohibited charging those fees but did not provide specific funding to school districts for covering that cost.

Indiana is among a handful of states still allowing such textbook fees, which Democrats and many education advocates have long criticized as an unfair extra cost to families.

Senate Republicans continue resisting the House GOP push for speeding up individual income tax rate cuts approved a year ago. Under the House plan, current rate of 3.15% would go to 3.0% next year and 2.9% in 2026 – three years earlier than currently scheduled.

While House Republican budget leaders say they believe state tax collections have remained solid enough to move up the rate cuts, Mishler said he wanted to, instead, direct more money toward paying off future teacher pension obligations that now cost the state about $1 billion a year.

“If we pay that down, that’s a billion dollars a year,” Mishler said. “I think it gives us flexibility for something more transformational.”

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