By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
Social distancing did not deter lawmakers from joining together to pass an overwhelmingly bipartisan budget at the close of the 2021 General Assembly that included a historic expansion to school choice in Indiana.
Only five of 150 legislators voted against the two-year, $37 billion budget that was boosted by $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding. The budget saw major increases in funding for K-12 public education, along with sweeping changes to extend the reach and impact of the state’s school choice programs. That includes Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, more commonly known as the voucher program.
The Indiana Catholic Conference and other advocates heralded the hard-fought success, which came exactly 10 years after they played a key role in the passage of the state’s original Choice Scholarship legislation that has become a model across the nation.
“Hoosier families won,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA), which represents the state’s more than 400 non-public schools, including Indiana’s 175 Catholic schools. “Most of the choice expansions lobbied for by the INPEA and the ICC will soon be a reality, and more families will now find non-public school options affordable.
“We thank the legislative leadership for their bold vision for funding Hoosier education.”
Among the school-choice provisions in the budget passed by lawmakers on April 22 are a dramatic expansion in eligibility for the voucher program and a sizable increase in the scholarship amount that voucher students receive.
The current eligibility for vouchers stands, in most cases, at a maximum family income of 150 percent of the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. Under the new guidelines, that threshold would jump to 300 percent by next year, helping middle- and upper-middle-class families still struggling to pay for private school tuition, Elcesser explained.
In addition, eligible families will see increases in the dollar amounts of the vouchers their students receive. Currently, the program operates under three tiers, with students receiving vouchers of 50, 70 or 90 percent of state tuition support based on family income. Going forward, all eligible students will receive a 90 percent voucher, representing 90 percent of the state’s tuition support for their child if they attended their local public school.
“These are historic developments that will help so many families send their children to the schools that best meet their needs,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “Even the highest quality public school still may not be the best choice for a particular family and their unique situation. We always support what is best for the child, and families are best at making those decisions.”
In addition to the school-choice legislation, the ICC closely tracked numerous other bills during this long session of the General Assembly, occurring every other year and culminating in the passage of Indiana’s biennial budget. As always, the ICC supported certain measures while opposing others, in keeping with Catholic social teaching.
A significant pro-life bill that had strong support from the ICC was headed to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk for signature at press time. House Bill 1577, authored by Rep. Peggy Mayfield (R-Martinsville), would require abortion providers to offer additional information and resources to women who are considering abortion, including an ultrasound image of their unborn child.
The most intensely debated aspect of the bill concerned offering women information about possibly reversing a chemical, or medication, abortion. This method of abortion in early pregnancy involves the ingestion of two pills within a 48-hour period. Women sometimes change their minds after taking the first pill, mifepristone, and the legislation would require abortion providers to inform them about an option that could potentially save the unborn child – taking the hormone progesterone after that initial abortion pill is consumed.
Another measure headed for the governor’s desk was House Bill 1009, which offers some advances related to Indiana’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program while stopping short of a long-sought-after increase to monthly cash payments for families in deep poverty. The ICC and its allies say they will continue to lobby for modernizing the implementation of that federal program in Indiana, which has not seen a meaningful update in more than three decades.
The ICC monitored several measures related to the environment throughout the legislative session and strongly opposes one bill awaiting the governor’s signature, even in modified form. Senate Bill 389, which originally would have eliminated legal safeguards for up to 90 percent of Indiana’s wetlands, was later amended to reduce some protections rather than abolish them entirely.
“While the amended version of the bill is not as harmful as the original, the ICC is still opposed to this legislation and would like to see the governor veto it,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC. “The Church’s rich tradition of environmental stewardship and care for creation form the basis of our opposition to this bill.”
Mingus and Espada, who just completed their first legislative session together at the helm of the ICC, have plans for keeping the Catholic faithful engaged on important issues like this in the General Assembly “off-season.” One example is delving deeply into “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” the groundbreaking encyclical by Pope Francis concerning stewardship of the environment. The ICC leaders want to use their revamped website and other vehicles not only to educate and mobilize Catholics on matters of importance to the Church, but to foster dialogue.
“We have used technology in many new ways, including launching our podcast,” Espada said. “These connections with the faithful along with the lawmakers helped tremendously as we worked on a variety of bills over these past four months.
“Because of COVID, this was an interesting legislative session,” Espada continued. “However, technology actually made connecting with legislators easier. We were able to schedule Zoom meetings with lawmakers instead of hoping to catch someone in the hall. These one-on-one meetings gave us the opportunity to present our positions on various bills.”
Regardless of how the 2022 General Assembly will operate, Espada and Mingus are counting on the continued support of the Catholic faithful in amplifying the voice of the ICC.
“We are so grateful for everyone’s advocacy and prayers during this legislative session,” Espada said. “We want people to stay tuned and stay engaged so that we can continue that momentum going forward.”
For more information, visit www.indianacc.org.