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Why 2023 Might Be the Year for Universal School Choice in Indiana

Scholar's View: Republican lawmakers should seize the moment and bring educational freedom to all Hoosier families

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The Indiana General Assembly has an unprecedented opportunity to implement the most promising educational reform they’ve yet to try: universal school choice.

It’s time for Indiana to move beyond the limited choice program we have now and create a genuine free market in which schools compete for students, and parents choose what is best for their families, with options ranging from home schools to special needs and vocational programs to traditional college prep academies.

This is what Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman pushed for in 1955 when he wrote, “The Role of Government in Education.” He observed, “Government has appropriately financed general education for citizenship, but in the process it has been led also to administer most of the schools that provide such education. Yet, as we have seen, the administration of schools is neither required by the financing of education nor justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society.”

Friedman, writing prior to the modern educational reform movement, blamed lack of consumer choice for low achievement and declining test scores.

Much has happened in the years since, including the release in 1983 of A Nation at Risk, which bemoaned the state of America’s public schools. In response, federal and state legislators lurched from one reform idea to another in an effort to make the system work, and they have met with nothing but failure. The trends were exacerbated by the COVID pandemic’s closing of schools and shift to remote instruction:

Math and language arts scores on the ISTEP and ILEARN assessments have fallen precipitously since 2011, with only 28% of Hoosier students achieving proficiency in both.

At fourth grade and eighth grade levels, Indiana math and reading scores on the NAEP test — the nation’s so-called report card — not only dropped last year but have fallen from their highs. This is especially notable considering that math and reading have been a singular focus of elementary schools since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, pushing performance-based evaluations of schools and teachers.

Only half of Indiana high school juniors tested as “college-ready” in reading and writing on the 2022 SAT test, and only one-third met readiness standards for math.

Model legislation for educational freedom can be found in Arizona, where parents choose between a public-sector school or an Educational Savings Account, worth about $7,000. Families can use that money for private school tuition, home school curriculum, online academies, and micro-schools. These are smaller learning communities, often created by parents and tailored to the specific needs of a student or group of students.

Indiana lawmakers could fund ESAs in the upcoming session using state dollars but eventually will need to address the fact that 30% of school funding continues to come from local property taxes ($3.7 billion in 2021). A reworking of the funding formula to ensure statewide equity is in order. Unlike our current voucher system, educational accounts should have few strings attached. A reasonable requirement for a school to qualify for ESA dollars would be proof of core curriculum, a condition similar to what Friedman recommended in his 1955 essay.

Indiana’s path

Indiana was a pioneer in school choice in the early 1990s when J. Patrick Rooney of Golden Rule Insurance funded scholarships for low-income Indianapolis children to attend private schools. Rooney died in 2008, but the success of his program led the legislature to adopt a variety of choice initiatives.

Today, 21% of Hoosier students take advantage of some form of choice: public charter or magnet schools, home schools, inter-district transfer, and vouchers to help pay private school tuition of students whose households meet certain income criteria. As of this year, Indiana also offers an Education Savings Account program, limited to students with special needs to be used to pay for private school tuition or individualized services. Unlike vouchers, which function as scholarships, ESAs allow parents to apply allocated state dollars to a variety of education expenses.

There has never been a better moment for educational freedom, said Robert C. Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice. Under our current choice options, he noted, “Twenty percent are taking charge. Society is failing the other 80%.”

Indeed, parents’ satisfaction with their children’s education has dropped from 51% in 2019 to 42% today, according to Gallup.

With super majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate, a mandate from voters, and the infrastructure already in place for ESAs, Republican lawmakers should seize the moment and bring educational freedom to all Hoosier families.

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review and a former member of the State Board of Education.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com. Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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