March 20, 2015

Budget bill boosts school choice for state’s children

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Children in Indiana stand to benefit in two ways from a boost to two existing school choice programs contained in the state budget bill.

House Bill 1001, the state budget bill, passed the House in late February and received a hearing in the Senate School Funding Subcommittee on March 10. The school choice portion of the budget bill removes the cap set at $4,800 per child in first through eighth grade for a state-funded choice scholarship, popularly known as a voucher. The bill also increases the maximum available amount of tax credits from $7.5 million to $12.5 million for donors who give to a Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGO).

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), said that the voucher program offers low- to moderate-income families an opportunity to attend a private school of the parent’s choice. Currently, 29,000 students statewide are enrolled at private schools through the voucher program.

Tebbe said another program which assists low-income families is the tax credit scholarship program. These scholarships are privately funded by donors who receive a 50 percent tax credit for each dollar donated. For the school year 2013-14, approximately 11,000 students were awarded the privately-funded tax credit scholarships administered by SGO’s.

Tebbe said the average tax credit scholarship per student was $1,000. The tax credit scholarship is a line item provision in the state budget that limits Indiana to only a certain amount of tax credits per fiscal year. The current limit is set at $7.5 million. School choice advocates are requesting a $5 million increase. Tebbe said donations last year almost reached $15 million, which would have exhausted the tax credit.

Under Indiana law, a voucher awarded a child will always cost the state less than educating the same child in a traditional public school. In first through eighth grade, the voucher amount is capped at the lesser of these amounts—tuition at the school, 90 percent or 50 percent, based on family income, of the per-pupil funding the child would have received to attend their neighborhood public school or $4,800.

Caitlin Gamble, who represented Hoosiers for Quality Education at the hearing, shared an example of the inequity in state funding between students entering a traditional public school compared to students in a public charter school, and students entering a nonpublic school who get a choice scholarship.

She told the Senate School Funding Subcommittee that the cost of educating a child in a traditional public school in East Chicago is $8,500. In a nearby public charter school, the per student cost is $7,500. Students who choose to attend a nearby private school with the aid of the voucher program receive $4,800 from the state. “No matter where that student chooses to go to school,” Gamble said, “that family’s income didn’t change. The only thing that changed was the school building that kid walks into each morning.”

Andrew Currier, principal of St. Adalbert’s School in South Bend, testified before the Senate panel that he supports the governor’s proposal to eliminate the $4,800 choice scholarship cap. Currier said out of his 225 students, more than 90 percent of the families are below the poverty line and 97 percent are of Latino descent.

He added many of his Latino students struggle with English language learning needs. Currier said that through their “hard work, no shortcuts” approach, their school has had success stories that have garnered national attention as a school that can defy academic odds. “Our students benefit from super-efficient use of extremely limited resources.”

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public School Education Association (INPEA) also testified in support of House Bill 1001.

“One of the benefits of this job is I get to travel around the state and talk to families who are benefiting from this program,” he said. “These lives have been changed by this program.”

Dr. Vercena Stewart, principal of Ambassador Christian Academy in Gary, said, “I’m a strong proponent of school choice. Parents have the right to choose the best environment for their children.”

Stewart added she is a product of the Gary public school system. She placed her own children in both public and private schools. In the school community where she serves as principal, the families have a median income of less than $25,000. Stewart said that parents would not be able to select a private school were it not for the voucher program.

House Bill 1001 is expected to pass the Senate before the end of April. Tebbe said he is hopeful the school choice portions of the bill will remain intact, and become law before the April 29 adjournment deadline of the Indiana General Assembly.

(For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, its Indiana Catholic Action Network and the bills it is following in the Indiana General Assembly this year, log on to Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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