By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
A dramatic expansion to school choice in Indiana took effect July 1, and an educational effort is underway across the state - spreading the word that nearly all Hoosier families now qualify for the program.
School-choice eligibility now extends to 97 percent of Indiana families, following the state legislature’s passage, earlier this year, of near-universal school choice as part of the current two-year budget. But educators and advocates say there is a learning curve to overcome because too many parents either have not heard about the changes or do not believe that they apply to their children.
“This is a pivotal moment for families in Indiana, nearly all of whom now will have the opportunity to send their children to the school that best meets their needs,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, which represents the state’s more-than-400 non-public schools - including Indiana’s 175 Catholic schools. “But we are finding that there is still a large part of the population that isn’t aware of this historic expansion to school choice in Indiana or how it applies to their families.”
Upon its passage in late April, Gov. Eric Holcomb hailed Indiana’s biennial budget as one with what he called generational impact. Approximately half of the $44.5 billion budget will support K-12 education statewide, with $2.3 billion in new funding that includes the expansion in school-choice eligibility.
Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, any child from a family of four that earns up to $222,000 annually will be able to receive a Choice Scholarship, more commonly known as a voucher, to attend a school of their family’s choosing.
The far-reaching changes in scope require what Elcesser calls a paradigm shift in the way that people think of school choice in Indiana.
“Initially, when school choice was first introduced in our state in 2011, the focus was on providing choice for families who couldn’t afford it,” Elcesser said. “But over the past 12 years of the program, the focus has now shifted to allowing all taxpayers the ability to use a small percentage of their tax dollars to exercise private-school choice.”
Along with longtime allies, including the Indiana Catholic Conference, the INPEA emphasizes that school choice should not and does not come at the expense of public schools, which are vital to society.
“Both of my children went to Catholic schools K-12, and throughout those years, I paid both tuition and taxes,” said Elcesser, a former Catholic school principal and superintendent. “The public school system is essential to our state, as it educates the vast majority of our students. I will always feel a responsibility as a citizen to support our public-school system. But I also support the idea that I can spend a small percentage of my tax dollars on private-school choice.”
In addition to expanding the financial eligibility component of participating in school choice, the legislation passed in April eliminated the so-called tracks or pathways to qualifying, which kept many families from participating even if they met financial eligibility guidelines.
Those pathways included requiring a student to have spent two semesters in a public school or to live in a school district with a grade of F as determined by the state. In addition to removing those and other conditions, the newly passed budget extended school choice access to all kindergartners. Until now, a kindergartner had to meet certain guidelines to qualify, such as an older sibling participating in a choice program.
“The ICC is inspired by the commitment and work of John Elcesser and the INPEA to give more families the opportunity to attain the education that is best for their children,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “The ICC also commends the Indiana General Assembly for giving more Hoosier families the option for choice.”
Now, the key is educating families across the state about the options that will be available to nearly all of them when the application window opens July 1.
A big information gap
“The push this summer and throughout the coming school year needs to be communicating that nearly every Indiana family now qualifies for school choice,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the IQE and a longtime leader in school choice efforts in Indiana. “We know there’s a big information gap.”
Wiley pointed to a study recently conducted by IQE and partner organization EdChoice that revealed that 60 percent of Indiana parents who expressed interest in exploring different educational options didn’t know that they qualified for school choice.
She encourages parents to visit myschooloptions.org for more information and resources, including an online school finder, or to reach out to schools of interest directly to find out more about next steps.
A great gift
Throughout the state, school administrators are reaching out to both current and prospective families to make them aware that they more than likely now qualify for school choice.
“This recent school-choice expansion is a great gift from our state,” said Rob Bridges, president of Cathedral High School, an independent Catholic high school in Indianapolis. “Coming from Michigan, which was once ranked last among states for the likelihood of getting school choice, and then coming to Indiana where it was already happening, it was a sight to behold.”
Bridges, who also serves on the board of INPEA, has a longtime interest in school choice that dates to his doctoral work at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. There, he completed his dissertation on the link between school choice and Catholic identity.
“I believe that school choice is a justice issue – especially for those who need it most,” said Bridges, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis. “Every child in this great country has the right to the best possible education. I believe that’s Catholic education, of course, and there’s data to back that up. But if a child is born into an area where there aren’t a lot of resources and the schools are not very good, that child is stuck, in most cases, unless they have other options.”
Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC, also spoke to the benefits of a Catholic education that is now within reach of almost anyone who seeks it.
“This expansion of educational choice will allow more Catholic families to fully exercise their right to a Christian education, as articulated by the Code of Canon Law,” Mingus said. “Freed from financial constraints, these families will have the option to send their children to Catholic schools where they will be formed in the mysteries of our faith and the virtues needed for faithful citizenship.”
For more information and ways to get involved with the ICC and its mission, visit www.indianacc.org.
To learn more about school choice or the advocacy efforts of the INPEA, visit www.inpea.org.
For additional information about school choice, visit www.myschooloptions.org.
Editor’s note: The Message will cover the impact school choice has had on Diocese of Evansville Catholic school families in the July 21 issue.