If the school scholarship tax credits approved by the Indiana General Assembly in 2009 represented the camel's nose under the tent, a bill posted this week represents the camel's back end.
Senate Bill 198, sponsored by Yorktown Republican Doug Eckerty, lifts the requirement that a student attend at least two semesters of public school before qualifying for a voucher. It also does away with any pretense of targeting vouchers to families who are trying to leave a struggling neighborhood school for a higher-performing private or parochial school. To land the support of parochial school parents last year, Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett urged them to be patient. It pays off next fall, when thousands of them will qualify for vouchers for children who would have attended parochial school regardless of the quality of their local public school.
The fiscal impact statement on the proposed bill appears to be absurdly conservative. It uses the figure of 26,630 – the number of private school students who qualified this year for a free- or reduced-price lunch – and multiplies that figure by $4,313, the average voucher amount this year, to arrive at a fiscal year 2013 cost of $115 million. That's the first year the cap on vouchers is lifted.
But vouchers in reduced amounts are available to students from families earning as much as 150 percent of the reduced-price lunch threshold, and the figure increases by $7,067 with each additional person in the household. A Fort Wayne family with five children could earn as much as $93,823 a year and qualify for voucher entitlements totaling at least $15,000 annually. That's in addition to the textbook tax credit available only to parents of private, parochial and home-schooled students.
Will the bill pass? Undoubtedly. Unless the pending lawsuit against the voucher program is decided in favor of the plaintiffs, Republican lawmakers have no reason to stop now. The battle over the right-to-work bill will drown out any complaints over another multi-million-dollar assault on public education.
Republican lawmakers also will benefit from a voucher pep rally. The governor rescinded the thinly disguised attack on Hoosiers' rights to assembly, so a Feb. 15 rally planned by School Choice Indiana won't be hampered by the occupancy limits aimed at organized labor. Apparently, no one considered in advance that schoolchildren clamoring for vouchers counted the same as union members protesting right-to-work legislation.