February 13, 2009

Bill would encourage scholarships for low-income students

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Parental choice in education is a privilege that is accessible most typically for higher income families or for those families who make big sacrifices to send their children to a non-public school.

This option may become available to more families if freshman Sen. Carlin Yoder (R-Middlebury) has his way through a scholarship tax credit proposal that he is offering this year.

Yoder’s proposal, Senate Bill 528, would offer a 50 percent tax credit incentive to corporations or individuals for donations made to qualified Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGO). A SGO would then provide grants to lower-income families for the purpose of school tuition or other school-related costs at a public or private school of the parents’ choice.

Yoder, who works as a school administrator at Clinton Christian School in Goshen, Ind., said, “On a daily to weekly basis, people are calling in who want to enroll in our school but simply can’t afford it.”

Yoder said his school is getting a lot of inquiries from lower-income families who are finding, for various reasons, that public schools are not meeting their needs.

“These families want to find out what alternatives they have,” he said. “The problem is they can’t afford to do anything. That’s what’s really concerning me. This is not a slam on public schools, but … some students … just need another option.

“Let’s say you have a kid that’s being bullied in school,” Yoder said. “This happens every once in a while, but to have to tell those parents that you can’t afford any options and that their kid is just going to have to stick it out and put up with that kind of treatment is a shame. Public schools just aren’t for everyone. I think the state of Indiana needs to step up and acknowledge that they need to work to provide other options to families that need them.”

Limitations in the area of special services to students is another reason why parents need a private school option.

“Students do not always get the help that they need in public schools,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the public school’s fault—they just can’t reach everyone—but the student is not getting the help he or she needs.”

Some students who need additional help learning must go through an evaluation process to determine if they qualify for special services.

“If they do not qualify for special services for whatever reason, then they are unable to get help,” Yoder said. “In a private school, we are not bound by the same regulations and can provide help to students in circumstances where the public school would not be able to.

“Public schools tend to view this [proposal] as threatening to them, but it shouldn’t be, in my opinion, because the kids that are doing well in a public school and are enjoying it aren’t going to leave the public school,” he said. “They like it there. The private schools are there for the kids that are struggling in the public schools or aren’t finding what they need there and are desperate for other options.

“This is important legislation starting down that path to more options for families,” he said. “I think this could be a good marriage between public schools and private schools to find out what’s best for our students and work together to provide that.”

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, said, “Children of lower-income families are often times precisely the children who need educational alternatives the most in order to achieve success in school, especially if the school they currently attend is not meeting their educational needs. Yet without adequate financial resources, these education opportunities are inaccessible to them.”

According to data collected by the School Choice Indiana Network, the national trend in educational choice policy has moved away from a voucher system toward tax credits. Eleven states currently have scholarship tax credit programs in place.

Currently, in Indiana there is only one scholarship granting organization in operation, the Indianapolis-based Choice Charitable Trust. This group awards scholarships to families to use for one of 60 participating schools in and around central Indiana.

SB 528 was scheduled to be heard in the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee on Feb. 10. The Senate panel is chaired by Sen. Brandt Hershman (R-Monticello), who supports the measure. The bill was expected to pass the Senate panel and move to second reading on the Senate floor, where it may be amended.

Bills on second reading are passed by a voice vote. Bills on third reading receive a roll call vote.

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

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