January 27, 2012

Proposals expand school choice to non-public school students

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

It could be a dream come true for Catholic school families—access to Choice Scholarships, also known as a state-funded voucher.

Three state lawmakers are offering proposals to be considered by the Indiana General Assembly this year to expand eligibility for school choice options to families with children currently enrolled in a non-public school.

Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, is proposing the most expansive of the three school choice bills.

Eckerty’s proposal, Senate Bill 198, would remove the eligibility requirement that a student must attend a public school for two semesters prior to receiving the scholarship. If families meet income requirements, children currently enrolled in a non-public school would be eligible for the scholarships.

Eckerty said his bill is primarily “corrective” in nature to the education reforms passed last year.

“Under the current program, before a child can qualify for the school choice scholarship, the student must be enrolled in a public school for two semesters prior. There isn’t any reason or logic behind that,” Eckerty said. “If you already have a child in a non-public school and qualify for the scholarship otherwise, the family should be able to receive the scholarship.

“It becomes problematic for the family and the child to be pulled from the non-public school and placed in a public school when the student is doing fine in the non-public school,” Eckerty said. “But to a single mother, or a family struggling to make ends meet, a parent may do this to qualify for the scholarship.

“Parental choice is what it’s all about. It is the decision of the parent, not anyone else, to decide what’s best for their children,” he said.

In addition, Eckerty said that the legislation has a cost benefit to the state. He said it roughly costs the state an average of $5,500 a year to educate a student in public school. The voucher is only $4,500.

“So do the math,” Eckerty said. “It saves the state about $1,000 per student. The bill is a positive for the parents and a positive for the state.”

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, who is Catholic, is also proposing legislation to assist current non-public school families.

Leising’s proposal, Senate Bill 296, would give students who are currently enrolled in a non-public school an opportunity to qualify for the scholarship tax credit (STC) in the eighth grade.

Once eligible for the STC, students could qualify for a voucher for high school. Present law prohibits current non-public students, who have not previously received a STC scholarship, from being eligible for the voucher.

Leising explained that under current STC guidelines, kindergartners who meet the income requirements that are eligible for the STC would then be eligible for a state-funded voucher in first grade.

“What I’m trying to do is allow eighth-graders to be eligible for a scholarship tax credit, which could allow them to be eligible potentially to receive a school voucher for ninth grade and the rest of their high school years,” Leising said. “I think it would be really helpful for parents who want to keep their kids in a private school, but aren’t sure how to do so financially. This bill gives parents who are trying to do what’s best for their children a little bit of relief.

“People interested in this issue could be very helpful in getting this [bill] passed by giving their senators a little nudge,” Leising said. “I would encourage parents to contact their senators and ask them to support Senate Bill 296.”

Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Bremen, is author of Senate Bill 331, which would provide eligibility for siblings in families who receive a voucher.

“What I’m trying to do in this bill is to help families out that are already receiving vouchers,” Yoder said. “It’s unfair to ask families who are receiving a voucher for an older child to require their younger sibling to start at a public school first, but that’s what the law requires.”

Yoder said he has heard from many of his constituents that this is a problem for families.

“It’s not fair to split up the siblings, especially when they meet the income requirements to qualify for the voucher,” Yoder said. “It puts an unnecessary burden on parents to have children in two different schools.

“I don’t think families should have to try out the public school for each child, especially when they have other children who are having success in the non-public school,” Yoder said.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, said, “The Church is supportive of school choice and these measures to expand eligibility. Many of our school families with low to moderate incomes could benefit greatly from these measures, and I’m hopeful they will pass this year.”

Members of the Senate Education Committee were scheduled to review the bills during a hearing on Jan. 25. Testimony will be given during that time.

If the bills pass committee, they will move to the Senate floor for a second reading.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

Choice Scholarships by the numbers

According to the Legislative Services Agency Fiscal Analysis on proposed Senate Bill 198, there are 3,919 students currently receiving Choice Scholarships—vouchers.

Those figures include 3,382 students attending public schools the prior year, and 537 students receiving a scholarship from a scholarship-granting organization the previous year.

There are approximately 26,630 students attending private schools who were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and they meet the income requirements to be eligible for the choice scholarship if Senate Bill 198 passes. The students would be eligible for a scholarship equal to 90 percent of the tuition support of the school corporation where the student resides, with a maximum scholarship of $4,500 for elementary schools.

To stay connected to the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), join the Indiana Catholic Action Network—I-CAN.

Interested parties may join electronically at the ICC web page at www.indianacc.org.

In addition to the I-CAN Update, people can obtain more detailed information regarding the bills and legislative process through the “Legislative Action Center” part of the website.

Under “policy tools,” click on “issues and legislation,” and access state or federal bills by clicking “current legislation.” Archived updates, ICC positions and other background information are also posted on the ICC website. †

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