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Clamor for vouchers? Not so much

The Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a group of public ed supporters formed this year to battle vouchers, expanded charter school options and other items on the Republican administration's school agenda, examined the school voucher program approved two years ago and found it's not serving the number of students promised.

As the Indiana General Assembly pushes ahead tomorrow with a far more costly and ambitious voucher bill, the coalition raises some interesting questions. The hearing on House Bill 1003 is set for 9 a.m. Wednesday in the House chamber.

Here is the news release from the Indiana Coalition for Public Education:

INDIANAPOLIS – FEBRUARY 14, 2011- The Indiana Coalition for Public Education questions the wisdom of extending Indiana's school scholarship tax credit program in House Bill 1003 when current scholarship-granting organizations have failed to comply with the law.

"Governor Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett should be applauded in their calls for greater transparency and accountability in government and in education," said Joel Hand, executive director of the Coalition, a grassroots, bi-partisan, not-for-profit, taxpayer group focused on preserving public dollars for public schools. "However, that transparency and accountability also needs to be applied to the programs the governor and state superintendent champion, not just the public schools they seek to disparage."

The Indiana General Assembly enacted Indiana Code 20-51 "School Scholarships" in 2009, which permitted taxpayers to get a 50 percent tax credit for any donations made to a scholarship-granting organization for students in grades kindergarten through high school. In turn, the scholarship granting organization is required by I.C. 20-51-3-3(2) to "Distribute at least ninety percent (90%) of the total amount of contributions as school scholarships to eligible students." According to documentation obtained from the Indiana Department of Education, a total of $261,193 was donated by Hoosier taxpayers in the 2009-2010 school year to three scholarship-granting organizations then participating in the program, but only $151,558 in scholarships were awarded to just 387 students statewide.

"That distribution equals only 58 percent -- far short of the 90 percent required by law," said Hand. "Either there are not that many families who want these scholarships for their children or scholarship-granting organizations are withholding money.

"Why should the Indiana General Assembly expand the school tax credit program under House Bill 1003 when the existing program fails to comply with the law?"

Hand said the existing program has not proved popular with donors to the scholarship-granting organizations. Indiana Department of Education statistics show only 31 contributions made to the scholarship-granting organizations for the 2009-2010 school year.

"If Hoosier families are truly demanding more educational options as State Superintendent Bennett and Governor Daniels frequently suggest, one would think more than 387 students would take advantage of these scholarships," Hand said. Hand cited the 2010 Hoosier Survey that found that two-thirds of Hoosiers oppose using their tax dollars to fund private school vouchers. The Hoosier Survey was conducted in December by the Ball State University Bowen Center for Public Affairs.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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