Jul 24, 2023 - Education

Indiana's near-universal voucher program starts now

Illustration of two backpacks; one empty and one stuffed with cash.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

When Hoosier students start heading back to school this week, it's expected that thousands more will do so at a private school while the state picks up the tuition tab.

Driving the news: State lawmakers earlier this year expanded eligibility for the Indiana Choice Scholarship program, known as private school vouchers, allowing all but the wealthiest Hoosier families to get a voucher to cover at least part of the cost of private school tuition.

Why it matters: The change is expected to balloon participation in the program, diverting millions of public dollars away from public schools and sending the money instead to mostly religious schools that don't have to accept all students or follow the same non-discrimination laws.

How it works: The program allows qualifying students to take up to 90% of the state dollars that would go to their local public school and put it toward their tuition at a participating private school.

  • Last year, more than 340 private schools participated in the program — nearly all of the accredited private schools in the state.
  • It's estimated that the average per-pupil award this year will be around $6,225.
Data: Indiana Department of Education; Chart: Axios Visuals

State of play: ​​The new income limit to receive a voucher is 400% of the cutoff to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a common indicator of financial need, meaning a family of four making up to $220,000 is now eligible.

  • The previous threshold was 300%, or roughly $154,000 for a family of four.
  • The state also removed all other barriers to joining the program, such as having previously attended a public school.

Between the lines: This means that many students who've already been attending a private school on their family's dime can now qualify for a voucher and the state will start covering that cost.

  • A state projection predicts voucher participation will grow more than 75% over the next two years to more than 95,000 students — up from 53,000 last year.
  • The program is projected to cost the state more than $1 billion over the next two years — up from $300 million last year.

The bottom line: The expanded eligibility moves Indiana to a near-universal voucher program, as it's estimated that fewer than 5% of households make too much to qualify.

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