Cost discussion missing in plan to increase scholarships
30 Jan 2023 — Journal Gazette
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Niki Kelly

Lawmakers need to be honest and upfront about the long-term cost of expanding education scholarship accounts to all children between the ages 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 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 education scholarship accounts, 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 a scholarship account - 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 not to 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 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.

Niki Kelly is editor of the Indiana Capital Chronicle (indiana capital, where this originally appeared. She covered the Statehouse for The Journal Gazette from 1999 to 2022.niki

This story is provided free courtesy of The Fort Wayne Newspapers.
"Cost discussion missing in plan to increase scholarships" Journal Gazette 30 Jan 2023: A8