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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 4:35 pm

Vouchers rally to push for increase in funding

Jamie Duffy The Journal Gazette

With the largest taxpayer-funded school voucher program in the country, supporters will rally Tuesday at IPFW to celebrate its success during National School Choice Week.

But along with the celebrating will come calls to increase funding for K-8 vouchers from the maximum of $4,800 to 90 percent of a home district’s per-pupil costs and raise the ceiling on a 50 percent tax credit awarded to private donors.

In Allen County, the two largest parochial school systems, among other private Christian-oriented schools, have welcomed school choice vouchers paid by the state and by school granting organizations, a state program that allows 50 percent tax credits for private donations to fund school scholarships.

Mark Muehl, director of the Northeast Indiana Lutheran Schools Partnership, based in Fort Wayne, said 15 of the 18 schools in the 4,000-student partnership participate in the school voucher program, and all of them are involved in the SGO program.

The 14,000-student Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend school system has seen "a significant increase in students who are able to access school choice over the last two years," said Marsha Jordan, the diocesan superintendent of schools. 

According to the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Indiana has the most generous, strongest eligibility guidelines nationwide. The state’s student voucher enrollment has more than doubled every year since it debuted in 2011. Compared with a dozen other states, the state has the highest participation level with more than 29,000 students, the foundation reported.

Friedman estimates that there are at least 21,000 available slots for voucher students in the state, which means that in a matter of years, voucher enrollment could be 50,000. There are about 1.1 million school-aged children in the state.

Of those available slots, 2,092 are in Allen County. In the 2013-14 school year, 3,449 students were enrolled in the voucher program, the foundation found. 

In Indiana, 97 percent of private schools polled in the school voucher program are religious institutions, and slightly more than 1 out of 2 are Roman Catholic, according to the Friedman report.

While the number of voucher students is growing in Indiana, the vast majority of K-12 students – 96 percent – attend public schools, said Tosha Salyers, director of communication and outreach at the Institute for Education Quality in Indianapolis.

"It’s not about school type for us. It’s making sure every kid gets a good education," she said.

Salyers hears people complain about the funding mechanism, that the program has gone beyond providing low-income families with a choice of schools and now allows the use of public tax dollars to help people with far greater means attend private schools.

"There are people out there saying, ‘You’re not poor enough to deserve choice,’ and that made them very upset," Salyers said. "Many families are a lot of time barely making ends meet, and we want a choice for our kids, just like everybody else." 

Groups such as Salyers’ are pushing to lift caps on voucher tuition amounts and SGOs, also called tax credit scholarships.

Those caps will most likely be lifted if the Republican-controlled General Assembly goes along with Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s State of the State speech, in which he called for an expansion of those programs.

Instead of the $4,800 maximum tuition payment available for K-8 education, school choice groups want the amount to be raised to 90â ¯percent of the per-pupil costs in a student’s home district, Salyers said. In other words, if a child lives in Fort Wayne, the current per-pupil cost is $6,275, so 90 percent of that cost would be $5,647.50.

"We have to keep in mind, in a lot of non-public schools, the churches are subsidizing a lot of that tuition amount, so they are putting up money to make their ends meet," Salyers said.

"This is all new money they are asking for, and they need to tell the taxpayers how much more in taxes they’re going to pay to fund their religious choices," said Mark GiaQuinta, Fort Wayne Community Schools board president.

"They are bringing it out in the open," he said. "They want the taxpayer to fund both public and religious schools, so if that’s the money they want and they feel the taxpayers should provide, then they should put a dollar amount on that and give the state’s taxpayers an accurate picture of what it will cost them on their tax bills."

Along with vouchers based on income eligibility, the SGOs have helped the private school bottom line.

The state set a limit on how much of this money donated by individuals or corporations could be written off in the form of a 50â ¯percent tax credit. In other words, someone donating $100 would be able to write off $50; a corporation donating thousands of dollars could write off 50 percent.

However, once the state limit of $7.5 million is reached, donations can no longer be written off at the 50â ¯percent rate, said Salyers, who, like other supporters, wants to see the cap raised to at least $10 million.

"Last year, we got really close to that cap, $7.2 million," Salyers said, adding that the tax credits are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

Although voucher schools are exempt from many of the regulations that public schools operate under, such as the complicated teacher evaluation forms, Salyers and others say regulations still exist.

For instance, voucher schools are required to have their students take the state’s ISTEP+ test, administered in the third grade through eighth grade and the end of course exams in algebra and English. The schools are also included in the state’s A-F accountabiity grading, she said.

"Public schools can receive a failing grade for six years," Salyers said. "Voucher schools can receive a D or F for two years before intervention can happen."

"Private school leaders are very concerned about regulation," said Brian Kisida, a senior research associate with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, in an email. His department released a study last week with the American Enterprise Institute.

"The prospect of future regulations that might come with participation was cited by 54 of participating schools in Indiana. Additionally it was the top factor that influenced schools that decided not to participate."

The Friedman Foundation reports that about a third of the 969 private schools in Indiana participate in school choice. But with expansion comes more students who may fit into a higher-cost, special needs category.

"Bear in mind, if someone attends (a public school) and has an IEP (individualized education plan) and special needs, if she goes down the street (to a private school), she still has all those special needs," said Salyers.

She said that by lifting the cap, "we think that would give those schools more resources to educate all those kids."

GiaQuinta disagrees. 

"We still provide special education instruction to those children who attend parochial schools," he said. "The state Supreme Court needs to evaluate the constitutionality of this entire program. It’s nothing but taxpayer-funded religious education, pure and simple."

jduffy@jg.net