Research & Commentary: Expanding Choice Scholarship Program and Enacting Special Needs ESA Would Provide Timely Help for Indiana Children

Published February 11, 2021

Legislation moving forward in the Indiana House of Representatives would expand eligibility for the state’s popular Choice Scholarship Program (CSP) voucher and also establish a new education savings account (ESA) program for children with special needs, children in foster care, and the children of active duty military personnel.

Beginning with the 2021–22 school year, CSP eligibility would be raised to include students whose household income is below 225 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $110,000 for a family of four), and then increase to 300 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $145,000) for the 2022–23 school year. This is expected to increase participation in CSP by around 38,000 students, more than doubling participation in the program.

The bill also seeks to scrap the funding level via income tier that currently funds families under CSP and instead make every voucher worth 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil spending amount.

The special-needs ESA tied in with the bill would be known as the Education Scholarship Account Program, with the accounts paying for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, as well for tutoring services, school-sponsored extracurricular activities, transportation costs, educational software, online courses, dual-enrollment courses, and educational therapies and services.

Additionally, the ESAs could be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT and ACT. The funding amount of each account would be equivalent to 100 percent of the amount allotted per pupil under the school aid formula. Leftover funds could be rolled over for use in subsequent school years and would be available to help pay for tuition at postsecondary schools.

The budget cap for the ESA program would be $5 million for the 2021–22 school year.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs such as ESAs  and tax-credit scholarships finds they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.

Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

It is probably for these reasons, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling done by EdChoice released in December 2020 found 81 percent support for ESAs among the general public and 86 percent among current school parents, the highest level of support the program has received in the organization’s eight years of polling on the issue. This represents a 4-percentage point increase over 2019. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s seventh-annual National School Choice Poll, released in January 2021, which saw 78 percent support for ESA programs. 

The goal of public education in the Hoosier State today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now. Legislators should recognize that and allow families as many options as possible to get their children the education they need and deserve.

Indiana is already a national leader when it comes to education choice. Expanding the Choice Scholarship Program and enacting the Education Scholarship Account Program would keep the Hoosier State at the forefront of that movement.

The following documents provide more information on education savings accounts, vouchers, and education choice.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Competitive Effects of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program on Traditional Public School Achievement and Graduation Rates
This EdChoice study examines how the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program affects students in traditional public schools, looking at the change in academic outcomes and graduation rates of students in Indiana traditional public schools based on their proximity to private schools participating in this statewide K–12 private school voucher program.

Why Indiana Parents Choose: A Cross-Sector Survey of Parents’ Views in a Robust School Choice Environment
This survey developed by EdChoice and conducted by Hanover Research aims to measure what motivates parents from all sectors—private, public, and charter—to choose schools, as well as their awareness of school choice options, their satisfaction levels, and the goals they set for their children’s education.

Why Parents Choose: A Survey of Private School and School Choice Parents in Indiana
This 2016 EdChoice survey is a follow up to the “Why Indiana Voucher Parents Choose Private Schools,” published in 2014, and the precursor of 2017’s “Why Indiana Parents Choose.” Over 2,000 private school parents took part in the latest survey. Forty-nine percent of the respondents to EdChoice’s original survey also took part in the second survey. The overwhelming majority of respondents were satisfied with their child’s new private school, indicating the Hoosier State’s school-choice programs are accomplishing their goal of matching students with schools that are more likely to fit their needs.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

The Effects of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program on College Enrollment and Graduation: An Update
In this update to a 2017 Urban Institute study, authors Matthew Chingos, Tomas Monarrez, and Daniel Kuehn find students participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are 99 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and 56 percent more likely to graduate, than their public school peers.

The Effects of Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation: Evidence from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
This study from Urban Institute scholars Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn shows Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program boosted college enrollment for participating students by 15 percent, with students enrolled in the program for four or more years seeing a 46 percent hike.

Fiscal Effects of School Vouchers: Examining the Savings and Costs of America’s Private School Voucher Programs
In this EdChoice study, Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Martin F. Lueken examined the fiscal impact of voucher programs across America—from their inception through fiscal year 2015—to determine whether they generated costs or savings for state and local taxpayers. Lueken found these programs generated cumulative net savings to state and local budgets of $3.2 billion. This represents a $3,400 savings per voucher recipient.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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