Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka, has raised alarm bells about the lack of accountability in private voucher schools in Indiana. (Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)
A top Republican lawmaker threatened to hold up new state spending for Indiana’s voucher school program — and advised parents to “beware” of non-public schools — after he claimed to have witnessed “disgusting” behavior at a private Catholic school in northern Indiana.
The reprimand is an uncharacteristic move for a member of the state’s GOP supermajority which has been the driving force behind Indiana’s “school choice” expansion for more than a decade.
“I would advise families looking at voucher schools to be aware that they are on their own at this point and time. They should strongly consider an alternative to the blemished and blatantly flawed procedures of accountability when choosing a school for their child,” Sen. Ryan Mishler said in a letter published Friday. “We need to hold the schools to the same high level of accountability they expect from the students and their parents.”
He detailed issues with one school’s policies, as well as alleged “mistreatment and bullying” of students by a staff member. He described the series of events as “the most disgusting situation I have encountered in my 20 years in the Senate.”
The senator from Mishawaka said the school mishandled parents’ concerns about those incidents — noting that administrators were able to do so because of a lack of accountability and transparency within the private school.
Mishler does not name the school outright, but his letter points to the same Mishawaka high school where his son is enrolled as a senior.
Voucher schools receive state funding but are not required to operate within the same parameters as local public schools. For instance, they don’t have elected school boards and don’t have to justify their spending. Critics have long maintained that such schools lack transparency and accountability to the public.
This buyer's remorse is the consequence of repeated deficiencies and the effects that they are having on some of the school's students and families.
– Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka
Mishler, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, pledged not to support “one additional dollar spent” on the voucher program until lawmakers enact policies to “protect these kids from abusive behavior and mistreatment.”
An expansion of Indiana’s education scholarship accounts — of which state dollars would largely go to private schools — has already sat untouched in Mishler’s committee for nearly three weeks.
Senate bills that seek state dollars in the next two-year state budget must first get approval from the committee. The bill has to be acted on by the Feb. 23 deadline, or it dies.
“We’re still discussing what that meeting will include,” Mishler said in an email to the Indiana Capital Chronicle.
Mishler unloads in letter
Mishler said representatives at the unnamed school reached out to him with an ask to “tweak” the current state’s voucher program. He noted that the school specifically wanted lawmakers to create an additional pathway for students in foster care to access school choice vouchers.
State lawmakers made the change in 2021, the same year they approved a larger, contentious expansion of the state’s private school vouchers by generously raising income eligibility for the program.
A parent later contacted Mishler, saying their child — a student athlete — was suspended for five athletic games for “consensually kissing a girl in school.”
Mishler attempted to advocate on the student’s behalf but said there was “little due process” for the athlete.
The senator also recounted later complaints he fielded from multiple other parents about alleged misconduct by a staff member at the school.
Parents expressed “worry” over a school employee’s conduct that caused “neglect and humiliation” for a student, Mishler said in his letter.
Mishler said he discussed the parents’ concerns with the staff member, principal and other school leadership directly, but “to no avail.” He maintained, too, that while the school pledged to “investigate fully” and provide a copy of the bullying policy, those promises were not kept.
“The overall attitude seemed to be, ‘Who are you to interfere with our business? I must admit that I was very disturbed!” Mishler said in the letter.
He said some parents sought help from the Indiana Department of Education, “only to be told the state agency had limited authority over voucher schools.” As a result, some families relocated so they could send their children to public schools, instead.
“This buyer’s remorse is the consequence of repeated deficiencies and the effects that they are having on some of the school’s students and families,” Mishler wrote in the letter. “I hope that families heed my candor, but if nothing else, let this serve as a transparent record of my time with the school.”
The senator did not explicitly name the school in the letter, but his reference to the school’s state tuition subsidy matches Indiana voucher data for Marian High School, a private high school in Mishawaka that is operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
The school received about $2.78 million in state voucher dollars for the 2021-22 academic year, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
“That alone gave me every right to ask the questions,” Mishler said in the letter.
Administrators at Marian High School did not respond to a request for comment.
Expansion bill on hold
A bill that would further expand “school choice” for Hoosiers advanced from the Senate Education Committee last month but has yet to be called for a hearing in the Appropriations Committee.
Indiana’s Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program is currently limited to students who qualify for special education.
A bill authored by Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, would extend the program to all students, regardless of their educational needs. This would be separate from — but similar to — the state’s voucher program, known as Choice Scholarships.
While families would have to meet income limits to participate under the proposed ESA expansion, the income ceiling is high. A family of four can make up to $154,000 annually — equal to 300% of the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. The same income requirements are already in place for the Choice Scholarships.
Indiana’s GOP caucus has refuted those claims and consistently advances legislation which lawmakers say gives families “more options.”
It’s not clear if Mishler’s pushback against the Choice Scholarship program is supported by others in the Republican caucus.
“I’ve received a lot of support from the people in my district, but I can’t speak on the behalf of my caucus members,” Mishler told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “I plan on trying to put something together and will see how the caucus feel about it.”
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said last month that he “would love to see” Indiana adopt a universal school voucher program.
Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, declined to comment on Mishler’s letter when asked by the Indiana Capital Chronicle on Monday.
Even if Mishler kills the expansion bill in the Appropriations Committee, language from the proposal could be cobbled into other bills, including the House version of the state budget. Such changes can be made up until April, when lawmakers are required to wrap up the legislative session.
In the House, Rep. Kyle Miller, D-Fort Wayne, responded to Mishler’s letter Monday with a proposed amendment to House Bill 1167, a measure that deals with live-streaming of public meetings.
Miller’s amendment sought to require schools receiving Choice Scholarships to have open meetings that are live-streamed to the public. It failed along party lines, however.
“If a school receives taxpayer dollars, they ought to be accountable to the public,” Miller said in a statement. “This amendment would have ensured that taxpayers, who are effectively funding these institutions, know what they’re paying for by requiring charter schools.”
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