Indiana’s new flexible ‘scholarship accounts’ for CTE divide opinion
Loriann Beckner can’t imagine the idea of going to nursing school without her internship.
A senior at Southwestern High School in Shelbyville, Beckner interns at a hospital, Major Health Partners, through the work-based learning program at Blue River Career Programs. Working with Blue River instructor Ray Schebler, she’s learned about financial literacy and career development skills that she says she would not have learned otherwise, in addition to what she learns at the hospital.
“He’s taught me how to do interviews and so [much] workplace learning stuff that my high school never would’ve taken the opportunity to teach me,” Beckner said. “I just think without my internship, I’d be super scared.”
But the future of Blue River — one of 52 career centers across the state that offers high schoolers academic credits, industry certifications, and more — has been thrown into doubt this year after Indiana lawmakers enacted a law that creates Career Scholarship Accounts. These will provide funding for students to pay for internships and apprenticeships with local employers without necessarily relying on current career and technical education programs.
GOP lawmakers said the law, which Republicans said would be a top priority this year, will help “reinvent” high school in response to declining college enrollment and evolving employer needs. They also say the accounts will make career training more accessible. Critics worry these new accounts will hurt programs like Blue River and the public schools that partner with them to provide career and technical training, without truly providing new or additional benefits.
The Career Scholarship Accounts are part of a push by state leaders to shift some authority and funding away from traditional public schools and educators to constituencies like parents and the business community.
During this year’s legislative session, the state also dramatically expanded its voucher program by making nearly every student eligible to receive public money to attend private schools. Such moves, combined with other measures passed to restrict how educators address divisive social issues, could ultimately shift traditional public schools closer to the periphery of policymaking and influence over education.
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed House Bill 1002, which lawmakers passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, on May 5. The bill was authored by Rep. Chuck Goodrich, R-Noblesville.
Each CSA account will receive $5,000 each year the account is active. Indiana’s 2024-25 state budget appropriates $5 million for CSA accounts for the first fiscal year, and $10 million for the second year. The bill also creates seven funding streams, focused on key aspects such as career coaching, to help students connect with employers.
“Giving students hands-on, applied learning opportunities and the ability to earn a credential before graduation is a game changer, not only for the student, not only for the family, but for Indiana,” Goodrich said during a House Education and Career Development committee discussion March 29.
Since a Career Scholarship Account (CSA) relies on creating a more direct connection between students and employers, Ray Schebler — Beckner’s instructor at Blue River — said he worries the private sector won’t provide adequate and multi-faceted support for students in their transitions from high school to the workforce.
“If it helps industry, that’s fine,” he said. “I’m a teacher. I want to see how it helps my students more than it would help a corporation.”
Debating what a quality career education means
Lawmakers have said their goal is to have between 5,000 and 10,000 students participate in the accounts in the next fiscal year.
A legislative fiscal analysis stated the program is likely to grow over time, and the law also specifies a CSA can be used to pay for postsecondary education and training, which could significantly increase participation as courses are approved.
It’s unclear exactly which businesses will participate, and whether businesses will eventually reach capacity limits.
Many of the 52 established career centers across the state, like Blue River, already offer career-focused training and credentials. Blue River, for example, offers three hours of high school credit per year, in addition to industry-recognized certifications. Plus, students can join extracurricular, career-focused programs not offered at traditional high schools, like business leadership and health industry organizations.
At Blue River, which offers 12 career programs, students in grades 10 and 11 can take instructional and career development courses for half of their regular school day, and spend the other half at their high school taking traditional courses. Seniors who attend the center take courses two days a week while also working at local businesses and worksites.
“We don’t pay employers now, but they’re calling here weekly, regularly,” said Steve Shaw, Blue Center’s director. “They want students to work. I’m not sure why they would have to be paid when there’s such demand for students to be out on the job site.”
But Jason Bearce, vice president of education and workforce development at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said he is pleased with the new Career Scholarship Accounts. One motivation behind Goodrich’s bill was a concern that career centers and their resources aren’t equally available everywhere across Indiana, he said. The new law looks to fill some of those gaps.
Bearce said the Chamber of Commerce supports the law, but still thinks lawmakers could be more clear about how the seven funding streams will cover expenses such as transportation and safety equipment.
However, he said the dedicated stream of funding for career coaching in the bill could lighten the loads on school counselors, who already juggle many tasks at once like test administration, scheduling, and lunchroom duty.
Bearce said many first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds may not be aware of their high school and postsecondary options.
“The more we can provide direct exposure to those types of opportunities, the more it’s going to bring a sharper focus for students [on] what they’re interested in and how it relates to what they’re learning in school, and ultimately just put them on a better trajectory for success,” said Bearce.
Shaw acknowledged that there are some students who might benefit from the proposed career scholarships whose current options are limited, such as those who are home-schooled.
Flexible career options for students a key issue
The law creating Career Scholarship Accounts gives funding to “intermediaries” — organizations that connect individuals with companies looking for new workers.
Under Goodrich’s bill, students do not qualify for scholarship accounts if they are already enrolled in a CTE program. While CTE centers at public schools can become scholarship account providers, schools are not given CTE grants for students with scholarship accounts.
John Hurley, a career and technical education teacher at South Spencer High School in Rockport, said that lost funding will have consequences.
“The local schools would end up not being able to offer much of the introductory classes that get students interested,” he said, speaking before Goodrich’s bill became law. “Then, you’ve not helped solve a problem — you’ve actually created a problem by not having those students be interested in the first place.”
There are also concerns about whether the accounts will provide sufficient support for students with disabilities and mental health issues, as well as worries about how easily students could change their minds about career training if they use Career Savings Accounts.
At Blue River, students can switch programs within the first two weeks of school or at the end of their first year.
“It’s good that students learn at that age, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do construction,’ instead of going out here once you graduate high school and thinking ‘I want to do construction,’ and then get hired and quit within two weeks,” Shaw said.
Striking the right balance between career exploration at school and career exploration on the job is important to many students.
Maggie Lutes, a graduating senior at Morristown High School, said the in-class time she gets at Blue River as part of her work-based learning program is crucial to her learning. Lutes works as a wastewater technician at Ryobi Die Casting in Shelbyville.
In Schebler’s class, she said, students prepare for job interviews, create resumes, learn how to file taxes, and develop entrepreneurial skills. This has helped prepare her for after graduation, when she’ll go to a four-year school for chemical engineering.
“If you’re going just straight into the workforce, you’re going to lose a lot of information that you could really gain from a class like work-based learning,” she said.
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.