February 15, 2013

House expected to pass comprehensive school choice expansion

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

When Karinya Chrisler learned that her son could receive a state-funded school scholarship voucher to attend the school of her choice, she was “surprised and elated” because she “never qualifies for anything.”

Chrisler, who supports a new school choice expansion bill, testified before the Indiana House Select Committee on Education during a Feb. 5 hearing. She said that she made the decision to search for another school for her son, Nicholas, because the school he was attending was not meeting his needs.

Chrisler told the House panel that her son now attends St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis thanks to a school scholarship voucher, and is thriving.

Chrisler says her son is “bright, happy and safe.” Though she is not Catholic, she told the House panel, “I wanted the morals and values that St. Joan of Arc teaches for my son, too.”

A bill expanding school choice options for more Indiana families is one step closer to becoming a reality as the Indiana House of Representatives moves toward passing it. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the bill.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, author of House Bill 1003, the school choice bill, outlined the details of his proposal before the House panel.

He explained that the bill provides access to school choice options for current nonpublic school families who meet the income guidelines. Current law requires children to attend a public school for two semesters prior to receiving a school scholarship voucher.

However, House Bill 1003 removes this obstacle for current nonpublic school families and also for students entering kindergarten who could receive a choice voucher to attend a nonpublic school provided their family meets income guidelines.

“In House Bill 1003, we are creating a preschool education tax credit program. We are now creating a Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO) for the exclusive use of preschool to help with early childhood development,” Behning said. Those who wish to donate to a SGO will get tax credits for their donations.

Behning’s plan also raises the scholarship cap for elementary school tuition. The scholarship cap for elementary school tuition is currently $4,500 per year per child. “Under House Bill 1003, we are increasing the scholarship cap to $5,500 the first year, and $6,500 the second year,” Behning said.

“House Bill 1003 contains the provisions outlined by Gov. [Mike] Pence, which provide access to a school choice voucher for children of military families, special needs children, adopted children and children in foster care,” he added. “We are adding an income cap at 300 percent of free and reduced lunch for these categories.”

Under the plan, the family income threshold is much higher for children in one of the four new categories. The family income could be nearly $130,000, but parents would still be able to use a school scholarship to send their child to the school of the parent’s choice. “To truly have a special education voucher, we also need all the special education dollars to follow the student to the nonpublic school,” Behning said.

The House panel heard several hours of testimony on the bill from school choice advocates and opponents.

Advocates including Glenn Tebbe, ICC executive director, who testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Church, said, “The Church supports House Bill 1003 primarily because it provides the opportunity for parents to decide what’s in the best interest of their children and provides a more level playing field between families who have resources to make a choice and families who do not.

“We have been educating children in Indiana for a long, long time from all socioeconomic groups and, in doing so, believe we are contributing to the common good.”

Mary McCoy, principal of St. Philip Neri School in Indianapolis, also testified in support of the bill. She thanked lawmakers for passing the original scholarship legislation because it is helping many parents choose a quality education for their children.

McCoy called the new school choice expansion legislation a “win-win situation” for students and families, especially because it will include access to a school voucher for siblings.

Opponents of House Bill 1003, including public school advocates, raised concerns about the drain of money from public schools going to nonpublic schools.

John O’Neal of the Indiana State Teachers’ Association testified against the legislation, saying the measure will divert the funding stream. O’Neal also raised questions whether Indiana could afford an expansion.

Sally Sloan, who represented the Indiana Federation of Teachers at the hearing, also testified in opposition to the bill. She expressed concerns about what kind of impact the legislation would have on public schools that are currently underfunded.

House Bill 1003 passed the House Select Committee on Education, and is headed to the House Ways and Means Committee for lawmakers to review the fiscal impact the plan could have on the state.

(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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