School voucher data focus of new bill

Superintendent, senator collaborate on legislation

Brown County Schools continues to lose students to surrounding public school districts, private education opportunities or homeschooling — 96 of them since September 2015.

Where are these students going and what can the public school district do to keep them here? Right now, that data isn’t available.

That’s one concern newly hired Brown County Schools Superintendent Laura Hammack expressed to then-Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, as she popped popcorn in the school district’s booth at the Brown County 4-H Fair last summer.

More than $130 million in state-supported scholarships was given to Indiana children last year to attend a school other than their local public school, if they wish. Nearly $100,000 went to 25 students living in the Brown County Schools district.

Koch took Hammack’s concerns and turned them into Senate Bill 30, which would require the Indiana Department of Education to provide public school districts information on not just the number of students using vouchers but also where those students are attending school on those vouchers.

“This information is important to our public school systems so they can possibly identify weaknesses and compete effectively. That can be inferred by knowing where the students are going,” Koch told the Indiana Senate Committee on Education and Career Development on Jan. 4.

Senate Bill 30 was one of the first bills Koch introduced as a senator.

Koch invited Hammack to testify in the support of the bill at the committee hearing.

“Without actual data, it’s difficult to lead our organization to make changes necessary to bring our boys and girls home,” Hammack told the group.

No personal information would be revealed in the IDOE-provided data, Koch and Hammack told the committee.

“We don’t care about the student names. We just want to know where they are going so we can be a little more competitive in our strategic plans to really try to market our district to satisfy the needs of families who are choosing somewhere else,” Hammack said in a follow-up interview.

Others who testified in support of the bill during the hearing were from both public schools and “choice options,” or private schools.

“This bill is neither pro- or anti-choice scholarship. This is not a bill either for or against. This bill is a data and information bill,” Koch said.

During the hearing, Koch said he would be open to amending the bill to allow the IDOE to also share the reasons why families left their public school district using a voucher.

The IDOE would be required to provide that information at the end of the fall and spring semesters.

Based on a recommendation by newly elected IDOE Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, Koch said he also would consider adding deadlines when schools would receive the data, by May 31 and Dec. 31.

Koch said groups on both sides of the school choice debate endorsed the bill.

“We really are genuinely so appreciative to Sen. Koch for listening to our needs, and what’s been really interesting and exciting is that we’re seeing support for this bill on behalf of public schools as well as choice options, too,” Hammack said.

“Folks feel like the transparency and the data would really allow for us to do better as a result.”

If the bill passes the committee, it will go to the full Senate for consideration.

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.