Indiana Expanding Voucher Program, Pausing Common Core

Indiana is expanding its voucher program while at the same time pausing its adoption of the Common Core Standards, according to the measure passed by both the Senate and the House late last week. House Bill 1427 is now just short a signature from Governor Mike Pence from becoming law.

The bill, which is the revised version of earlier House Bill 1003, was one piece on a slate of new legislation passed by lawmakers late Friday as they rushed to finish up business before the legislative session finishes. The expanded voucher program extends voucher eligibility to students with siblings in the voucher program, those living in a local area of a school rated D or F and special needs students. The current program requires prior enrollment in a public school for at least two semesters after kindergarten before a student becomes eligible.

The author of the bill, Representative Robert Behning, predicts that nearly 200,000 extra students around the state will now become eligible for vouchers thanks to the newly adopted rules.

Under current law, families of four making $42,000 or less can receive up to 90 percent of the state aid set aside for their child’s public school education to pay tuition. State aid generally ranges between $5,000 and $8,000 per student depending on what school district the student lives in. Families making up to $62,000 can receive half of the state aid amount for private school tuition.

Critics of the bill have said the fast-growing program could quickly become a burdensome cost for the state. But advocates argue that it provides opportunity for children stuck in low performing schools or who fit better in private schools.

The support for the measure broke down predictably along party lines. Even as the final vote came closer on Friday night, Democratic lawmakers in both houses continued to voice objections. Representative Vernon Smith of Gary said that the public school system will not be able to easily absorb the shock of funds lost due to students taking advantage of vouchers. He called the program absurd and said that the state should take a second look at it instead of expanding it further.

Along with the voucher expansion, lawmakers also approved a measure that would halt the adoption the Common Core Standards in the state as of May 15th.

Common Core is a set of academic standards that Indiana and 45 other states have pledged to follow. Critics say Common Core standards fall short of Indiana’s well-regarded prior standards in some areas and take decision-making about what kids learn out of the hands of state policymakers and local communities.

But supporters argue Indiana could fall behind by backing out. Textbook publishers and standardized test makers, including those who make college entrance exams, are moving quickly to adapt to the new standards.

The bill requires public input meetings and a new vote on whether to continue implementing the Common Core by the end of 2014 by the State Board of Education, which originally approved common Core in 2010.