U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos joined Republican lawmakers last week in announcing a push for federal tax breaks for contributions to private and parochial school scholarships. That's hardly a novel concept in Indiana, where seven private groups helped boost enrollment in the state's school voucher program to a record 36,290 students this year.
Indiana Scholarship Granting Organizations, as they are known, offer one of the eight pathways for families to qualify for vouchers. Attending a private or religious school for one year on a privately funded scholarship makes a student and siblings who follow eligible for taxpayer-supported tuition as long as the family meets income guidelines – up to $81,641 a year for a family of five. The Indiana Department of Education's annual school voucher report, posted Monday, shows 58 percent of Indiana voucher students this year never attended public school, up from 56 percent last year.
It's no coincidence DeVos and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are following Indiana's lead in pushing a tax-credit program to advance a national voucher agenda. The architects of Indiana's voucher program recognized early on they had to convince families already enrolled in private and parochial schools that they also would see benefits. Tax credits appeased those who had covered their own tuition costs, while the so-called scholarships made thousands of students who had never attended a public school eligible for vouchers – 2,039 more voucher students this year alone.
“School choice” is now accepted as fact by most Hoosiers, even as they learn schools collecting tax dollars – $161.4 million this year – are not held to the same requirements as public schools. To her credit, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick has been outspoken in pointing out the cost of choice and its effect on public schools.
“The (Department of Education) continues to be diligent in compiling and reviewing the trend data as it relates to the Choice Scholarship Program,” she told The Journal Gazette in an email statement. “Knowing the K-12 budget proposals are inadequate and given the House budget proposal adds an additional $18 million to the Choice Program, we are committed to the full transparency of data to better inform communities and policymakers. Our travels across Indiana have revealed a lot of confusion and questions from taxpayers regarding the intent, expense and impact of the program as it relates to our most vulnerable students.”
“This program continues to be a choice not for students, but for the schools receiving them,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools. “If a (voucher) school doesn't feel like accepting a student for whatever reason, they don't have to. Oftentimes, that means students who are in need of special education services or special discipline aren't welcome there. Often those families turn to us, and we're happy to take them – because they are our children. Not all schools feel that way.”
The newly released report shows the number of voucher students who live within the state's largest school district fell to a four-year low. The 4,642 voucher students in the Fort Wayne district are down from 4,711 last year. That's still the highest number from any single district, with Indianapolis Public Schools at 3,761, up from 3,584 last year.
Where the state's annual report falls short is in illustrating the economic impact of the voucher program on students, schools, districts and counties. Phil Downs, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, used state data to illustrate the statewide redistribution of education funds to support 329 voucher schools.
“The voucher money is not taken from the local school, it is taken out of the Tuition Support budget, (there is not a simple transfer of funds between the two schools) thereby decreasing the dollars for all public schools,” Downs explains.
Indiana's tax-credit/voucher history should be a warning to federal lawmakers weighing DeVos' $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships.
“This program won't take a single cent from local public school teachers or public school students,” she wrote in a USA Today op-ed.
Indiana public school supporters know better. The money now supporting the state's voucher schools came straight from public schools' bottom line.