The Journal Gazette
Sunday, June 20, 2021 1:00 am

Voucher boost gives 'bonus' to select families

Julie Hollingsworth

It's rare to hear people admit their government entitlement is not a necessity, but that's what two families who will benefit from Indiana's K-12 voucher expansion told Today's Catholic in a May 27 article.

One parent, with three of six children still in K-12 schools, stated “...we think it will help us to be able to do the other activities they're interested in – the sporting events, the camps, the extracurricular things outside of school.” The same parent added, “I feel like this is going to help us tremendously to be able to do those things more often; go to the zoo, go to the movies.”

A second parent said, “this is a bonus for us” and “With me volunteering in the school again, instead of working, this will take the pressure off.”

In 2021, the Indiana General Assembly, with a Republican supermajority, passed a major expansion of private school vouchers. The income eligibility will jump from 150% of the federal free and reduced lunch program limit to 300%, making a family of four earning nearly $145,000 eligible for a voucher.

The current program has 50%, 70% and 90% vouchers, each with income limits. Beginning next school year, all vouchers will be 90% of what the state would pay for that child to attend public school.

Opponents of these voucher expansions argued they would only benefit families already paying for their children to attend private school. Those parents would see their voucher amount increase to the full limit or would now receive a voucher where previously they had not. Neither expansion affects low-income parents who were already receiving a full voucher.

The Today's Catholic article confirms the concerns of opponents to voucher expansion, documenting the benefits for families who were already sending their children to private schools. With the benefit of a full voucher, those parents have more funds for movie trips and summer camps.

What parent would not want financial assistance to expand opportunities for their children? What parent hasn't struggled when prioritizing which of their children's activities they can afford? But should that be the purpose of taxpayer-funded entitlements?

I'm sure many public school parents could use assistance with textbook fees and school supplies, thus freeing family funds for zoo trips and sporting events. Indiana is one of a handful of states that does not cover textbook fees for public school students. If Indiana can afford to subsidize extras for private school families, it should be time to fund public school student textbook fees.

Republican skepticism of the need for certain entitlements is well-documented, from Ronald Reagan's mythical “welfare queens” to the current criticism of unemployment benefits. It's interesting that those so skeptical of programs for the  low income have enthusiastically embraced a program for middle- to upper-middle-class families.

Vouchers were not the only K-12 entitlement expansion in the 2021 legislative session. Indiana also has Tax Credit Scholarships for private school students; the cap for that program will increase by $1 million each of the next two years.

Education Saving Accounts are a new K-12 program for special-needs students that will begin in the 2022-23 school year. ESAs, which provide families with a voucher-sized chunk of money to spend on student services, have a history of fraud in other states.

Indiana has a low accountability bar for its charter and voucher programs, as proven by the Indiana virtual charter school that defrauded the state of as much as $68 million in taxpayer funds. No Indiana attorney general has announced any effort to recover that money.

With such a poor oversight history, Education Savings Accounts in Indiana should be considered dangerous.

With such a vast array of school funding programs and an entitlement program that serves many families' wants, not needs, it seems Indiana is due for an honest assessment and discussion of its K-12 funding.

Why does Indiana have both a voucher program and a Tax Credit Scholarship program? Why is there almost no financial accountability for how taxpayer funds are spent in these programs? Why didn't the recently crafted two-year K-12 budget fully fund the recommendation of the governor's Teacher Compensation Commission to increase public school teacher salaries when legislators had the chance?

Such an honest discussion should happen, but supermajorities like that in the Indiana General Assembly don't have to answer to voters, only to donors, so such an honest discussion is unlikely to happen.

That's too bad because Indiana voters and taxpayers deserve answers to these and other questions.

Julie Hollings-worth is a retired educator with 32 years of experience in public education, including 30 years with Fort Wayne Community Schools. She is serving her third term as District 1 representative to the FWCS school board.

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