Looking back at the history of school choice in Indiana

By Victoria Arthur

Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers

Editor’s note: This is part of the series on Indiana’s School Choice Program. 

Mitch Daniels

The idea that choice would improve all schools, both public and non-public, and the efforts that culminated in the 2011 legislation, were bold from the beginning. For decades, lawmakers and advocates including the ICC and the INPEA had been working toward making school choice a reality in the state. Those plans finally reached fruition under the leadership of Gov. Daniels, who made education reform one of the cornerstones of his agenda.

“We must begin to honor the parents of Indiana,” Daniels had said in his 2011 State of the State address, a few months before passage of the Choice Scholarship legislation. “We must trust them, and respect them enough, to decide when, where and how their children can receive the best education, and therefore the best chance in life. For families who cannot find the right traditional public school, or the right charter public school for their child, and are not wealthy enough to move near one, justice requires that we help. We should let these families apply dollars that the state spends on their child to the non-government school of their choice.”

Now, 10 years later, the former governor reflected on the initiative. 

“Providing poor and minority families the same choice of schools that their wealthier neighbors enjoy is the purest example of ‘social justice’ in our society today,” said Daniels, who has served as president of Purdue University since completing his second term as governor of Indiana in 2013. “The baseless and plainly self-interested arguments made against this program by the usual special interests only underscore its validity.  I will always be proud that Indiana has established itself as a national leader in expanding opportunity and protecting the interests of its less fortunate citizens in this critical realm of life.” 

‘Every piece is essential’

For Glenn Tebbe, who served as executive director of the ICC during those years, Daniels’ support and influence cannot be overstated when looking back on what occurred a decade ago. 

“His commitment was critical to enable it to happen,” said Tebbe, who retired last May after 16 years at the helm of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “(School choice) will always be one of his greatest legacies in state government.” 

Tebbe recalled strategy sessions at the governor’s residence with other key players, including Elcesser, who took over Tebbe’s former role at the INPEA in 2008. 

“Gov. Daniels was very engaged throughout the process,” Tebbe said. “He put several questions directly at me, making sure we were going to do our part if he was doing his part.”  

The issue of providing support for families to help them direct their children’s education had been a matter of long-standing importance to the Catholic Church, according to Tebbe. In fact, it was one of the priorities that the ICC took on after its formation in 1966. 

An early success came 50 years ago, when the ICC, working in partnership with other stakeholders including Lutherans in the state, built a strong case that non-public schools provided a vital public service and saved Indiana taxpayers at least $78 million annually. History was made on March 12, 1971, when the Indiana House passed the first bill that would have provided state aid to non-public schools. 

Although the bill was later voted down by the Senate, this effort laid the groundwork for future efforts by the ICC and its allies, who would see major success in decades to come. In 2009, also during the Daniels administration, the state legislature passed the Scholarship Tax Credit program, which built momentum for the school choice legislation that would follow two years later. 

From the beginning of the ICC’s efforts, and now continuing under the leadership of Tebbe’s successor, Angela Espada, partnering with allies has been key. 

“Working collaboratively with others was the model from the beginning, and this is how the school choice legislation eventually passed,” Tebbe said. “It’s like a mosaic. There are a lot of different pieces, and every piece is essential. It’s not a complete picture until that last piece is in place, and that’s what happened 10 years ago.”

‘Still the gold standard’

Another key player – and one who brought experience in both private and public school education to the table – was Dr. Tony Bennett, who was elected state superintendent of public instruction during the Daniels administration.

A product of Catholic schools, the graduate of Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville, Indiana, ran for the office in 2008 and won, playing a critical role in shepherding the governor’s ambitious education reform agenda. In doing so, he and others in state government at the time faced fierce opposition from teachers’ unions and other organizations – many of the same critics opposing the expansion legislation at the Statehouse today. 

Legal challenges also followed the 2011 legislation; but in 2013, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously ruled the program constitutional, arguing that it is the families – not the schools – that mainly benefit from it. 

Bennett says he is heartened by the fact that since Indiana led the way in 2011 with the most comprehensive school choice program in the nation, so many states have passed or are currently considering school choice legislation. 

“I believe that what we did has withstood the test of time,” said Bennett, who now serves as senior vice president of K12 Inc., the nation’s leading provider of online school curricula. “Indiana’s school choice program is still considered the gold standard.”

He and others credit key members of the coalition like Robert Enlow, currently president and chief executive officer of education reform organization EdChoice, with helping to craft the robust public policy case behind the Choice Scholarship legislation.