January 25, 2013

Church supports school choice expansion proposed by lawmakers

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

More than 9,000 Indiana children gained access to a nonpublic school of their parents’ choice for the 2012-13 school year—an opportunity they would not have otherwise had.

“[This is] an opportunity the Church supports as a matter of social justice, parental rights, and good public policy,” said Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), who serves as the official spokesman on state and federal issues for the Church in Indiana.

“Not only does the Church place a high priority on the issue of supporting school choice expansion, but school choice expansion is expected to get significant attention this year,” he added.

Tebbe expects lawmakers to improve access for families seeking a school choice voucher.

“One major obstacle to the current school scholarship law is that a significant number of children must attend a public school for at least two semesters before they could be eligible for a voucher,” he said. “This provision basically knocks out many current Catholic school families from receiving a voucher even when they meet the income requirements to get a voucher. This is an obstacle that at least two lawmakers are trying to change.”

In the Senate, Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Bremen, has authored a bill to grant voucher eligibility to siblings of current voucher recipients. Yoder’s proposal, Senate Bill 184, received a hearing in

mid-January in the Senate Education Committee.

Yoder told lawmakers during the hearing that he wants to provide school choice for entire families so siblings may attend the same school. The senator said he believes if one child is having success in the nonpublic school, siblings in that family should not be required to try public school first as current law requires.

The Senate panel heard two hours of testimony on the bill from school choice advocates and opponents. Advocates including Tebbe, who testified in support of the bill, expressed to members of the panel that the Church supports the bill primarily because it helps parents be better engaged in their children’s education.

“It is counterintuitive and counterproductive to require children to be in two different school systems, as one requirement of gaining access to a voucher,” Tebbe said.

Another school choice advocate, John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Nonpublic School Association, said that it is best for siblings to be in the same school, and noted that other voucher programs across the country have a sibling provision.

Opponents of Senate Bill 184, including public school advocates and individual teachers, expressed concerns over the constitutionality of the current voucher law. They also feel school choice takes money away from public schools. However, figures show that the first year of the voucher program resulted in nearly $4.2 million in savings, which was redistributed to public schools across the state.

In the House, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, is carrying a comprehensive school choice expansion proposal which Tebbe expects to move this year.

Behning’s proposal, House Bill 1003, includes several significant expansion components. Some of the proposed changes in the bill include an increase in the tax credit from $1,000 to $3,000 for unreimbursed school related expenses; a preschool scholarship tax credit program; eligibility inclusion for special needs children, children in foster care, military families, and inclusion of siblings who currently receive school scholarships, which is also a provision in Senate Bill 184.

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

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