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Ready for vouchers?

Much attention is being paid to the fact that details of Indiana's new voucher program are still undetermined with just weeks left before school begins. So, will everything fall into place and will 7,500 Hoosier children attend private or parochial schools with taxpayer assistance this fall?

Count on it. From the perspective of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, the details already are settled. The Journal Gazette's Sunday editorial looked at legislative intent behind HEA 1003, which increasingly appears to be an effort to save Catholic schools. That wasn't what lawmakers indicated during the session, of course, but declining enrollment in Catholic education was the explanation I got from the diocesan school superintendent when I asked about a message in one parish's bulletin.

The newly approved law, literally signed with a kiss from Gov. Mitch Daniels, allows students who received a choice scholarship from one of five state scholarship granting organizations to qualify immediately for a voucher. That means that parents who always intended to send their children to a parochial school can now receive a scholarship for kindergarten and then qualify for 12 years of taxpayer-supported vouchers.

Parochial schools, battling declining enrollment as the economic downturn continues, can simply contact the families who have returned to public school because they couldn't afford the tuition. They can offer a tax-credit scholarship for next year, with assurance that 15,000 vouchers are available in 2012 and an unlimited number in 2013.

For the parents who have been paying tuition for their children, the parish bulletin promises "nice drops in tuition" as new sources of income roll in. There's also an assurance that school standards won't be lowered.

The diocese's superintendent insists the testing and screening mentioned in the newsletter isn't to screen out students, but only to ensure they will fit in with the program. That seems like a politically correct way of suggesting that unwelcome students will be counseled to go elsewhere.

Will the voucher program open up opportunities for the children of Burmese and Somali Bantu refugees who now are enrolled in Fort Wayne Community Schools? I don't know. The superintendent changed the subject when I asked.

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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