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Voucher savings? Don't count on it

The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly reported last week of another of those unintended legislative consequences. This time, it's the parents of a parochial school student transferring their child (or children) to a public school for a year to qualify for voucher support the next year.

The evidence is anecdotal, of course, but the fact that the principal of a Fort Wayne Catholic school shared the information suggests it's no secret. Of course, state education officials are no longer collecting information that shows where a particular school's students come from or where they go, so there will be no way to determine next fall how many private and parochial school students sat out a year in public school just to qualify.

For lawmakers who supported the new entitlement program as a cost-savings measure, the transfer news should be troubling. One argument for the voucher program was that it would actually save the state money because the voucher reimbursement to the parochial/private school is less than the per-pupil state tuition support at the public school.

What lawmakers overlooked, however, is the tremendous financial incentive they offered to parents willing to pull their kids out of private or parochial school for a year just to qualify for vouchers. Those are families who always intended to send their children to private or parochial school. The General Assembly just gave them a way to do it at taxpayer expense.

Legislators already had included in the law a way for parents to ensure their younger children qualified for vouchers without ever attending public school. Here's how St. Jude Catholic Church explained it in a parish newsletter last June:

If we give a scholarship to an incoming kindergartener, as long as they stay within the income limits, that student will be eligible for vouchers for the next 12 years. (Full vouchers for 12 years could be worth $57,000 in tuition!)

The newsletter goes on to say that increasing voucher enrollment should lead to "nice drops in tuition."

The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana's voucher program is proceeding, in spite of the Marion County court's decision not to grant a preliminary injunction. Whatever the outcome, don't allow legislators to insist the new entitlement program is saving money – those are simply tax dollars flowing where they've never gone before.

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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