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The Journal Gazette

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Sunday, June 16, 2019 1:00 am

Editorial

Voucher accountability charade

When Horizon Christian Academy produced some of the lowest standardized test scores in the state in 2015, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Quality Education defended the Fort Wayne school's poor performance by claiming accountability for Indiana voucher schools is greater than for public schools.

“Traditional public schools as well as public charter schools can receive an F for four consecutive years before the state can intervene,” Erin Sweitzer told The Journal Gazette. “Private voucher schools, however, are required to stop accepting new voucher students after two consecutive years of receiving a D or F.”

What Sweitzer and other voucher proponents don't acknowledge is the accountability loophole that allows charter and voucher school operators to walk away from a failing school and open shop under a different name – with barely an interruption in the generous flow of state tax dollars. After a D grade in 2015-16, Horizon Christian Academy went on to receive an F for each of the next two academic years. The state prohibited the school from accepting new voucher students last year, but paid $880,000 in vouchers for returning students. That's on top of the $11.4 million Horizon's three schools have collected since the taxpayer-funded voucher program began in 2011.

Now, the school's co-founder has left Horizon and is preparing to open a new faith-based school, Abraham Preparatory Academy.

Tammy G. Henline told The Journal Gazette's Ashley Sloboda that the school, at Statewood Baptist Church, is planning a “large, public registration soon.” WFFT-TV reported the school will “rely heavily on a virtual curriculum” and is seeking state accreditation, which would make it eligible to receive vouchers.

If the Indiana State Board of Education approves accreditation, it will deliver Exhibit A in the accountability charade supported by voucher proponents.

In the name of parent choice, they ignore policies that allowed the failing Imagine public charter school to reopen as Horizon Christian Academy and for unlicensed educators to earn six-figure salaries overseeing D- and F-rated schools.

As leader of the 300-student Horizon Christian Academy, Henline earned $245,726 in compensation in 2017, according to the nonprofit school's 990 tax form. She does not hold an Indiana educator license, according to state records.

Her co-founder at Horizon, Anthony Beasley, earned compensation of $244,649. Likewise, he is not licensed by the state.

For comparison, Superintendent Wendy Robinson earns $230,000 a year overseeing Fort Wayne Community Schools, the largest school district in Indiana with nearly 30,000 students. Robinson has four education degrees and has held a valid educator license since she joined the district as a teacher 46 years ago.

Most of the schools participating in the state's voucher program are not required to file federal tax forms because of their religious exemption, so administrative salaries at those schools are unknown. Because Indiana's voucher program was structured to funnel tax dollars through parents, the private and parochial schools where the money is used are exempt from open records and meetings law. The board members who oversee spending are not elected officials.

The same legislators who accuse public school administrators of collecting excessive paychecks at the expense of classroom teachers show no interest in how tax dollars are used at private schools. That leaves other supporters of school choice to protect the integrity of the $161 million-a-year voucher program, beginning with calls for greater financial transparency. 

They also should demand that the General Assembly place new requirements on voucher school administrators. Minimum education qualifications for those using tax dollars to operate schools should be instituted, along with regulations to prohibit them from skipping from one failing school to another.

Indiana's voucher program isn't likely to go away. But those who favor spending public dollars on private schools can best safeguard the program with  accountability provisions that separate those seeking to educate Indiana students and those looking to make a buck.