July 10, 2009

Lawmakers adopt school choice tax credit in state budget: Catholic grassroots effort pays off

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

School choice has come to Indiana.

For the first time in the state’s history, the Indiana General Assembly passed a school choice option for low- to moderate-income families when the legislators adopted a $2.5 million annual scholarship tax credit in the final hours of a special session as part of the state budget, which passed on June 30 with bipartisan support.

“A long hard fight for school choice advocates and grassroots lobbying has paid off,” said Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference executive director, who educated and encouraged lawmakers for many years to pass school choice legislation.

“It is quite amazing, especially during these tough economic times, that the General Assembly adopted the scholarship tax credit,” Tebbe said. “For the first time, many low- to middle-income families statewide will be eligible and awarded scholarships to send their children to a public or private school of their choice.”

Individuals or corporations can receive a 50 percent tax credit on their adjusted gross income tax for charitable gifts made to a scholarship granting organization.

Accredited public and private schools can participate in the program. Scholarship eligibility is based primarily on a family’s income.

In addition, students must be enrolling in kindergarten or enrolled in a public school during the preceding school year or have received a scholarship in the previous year from a qualifying scholarship granting organization to be eligible.

Sen. Carlin Yoder (R-Middlebury), original author of the scholarship tax credit proposal, said, “It was definitely a victory getting the scholarship tax credit passed. There’s no doubt about it. There are a lot of happy people.

“What this is going to do is to open the door for lower-income families who may be in a failing public school,” he said. “Those who didn’t have an option before now can look at private schools and now make a decision based on what’s best for their [children] instead of being forced to send their [children] where they don’t want to send them.”

When asked if he was aware of any scholarship granting organizations getting ready to be created in his area of the state, Sen. Yoder said, “Yes, I’m planning on getting together with private schools in northern Indiana to work on coming up with a consortium or group of schools to see if we can get one started. There is a real need in our area.”

Sen. Yoder said he attributed passage of the school choice provision to a coming together of House and Senate Republicans along with a push from Gov. Mitch Daniels.

“It was also the work of school choice advocates like Glenn Tebbe and the many people who got involved at the grassroots level that made this happen,” he said. “The years of work by other lawmakers who laid the groundwork for this also made it possible.

“The most important thing was to get this started, and that’s what we were able to accomplish,” Sen. Yoder said. “When you boil this down, it’s an issue about kids. There’s no question, this benefits kids and it’s a good thing—that’s the bottom line.”

Sen. Teresa Lubbers (R-Indianapolis), a longtime school choice advocate and Senate Education Committee chair, said, “It was a great success of the session.

“Since this is my last session, it was especially gratifying walking out of there knowing we had accomplished some kind of private school choice. It was a great victory,” said Sen. Lubbers, who is leaving the Senate to become state Commissioner of Higher Education.

When asked who the program will benefit the most, Sen. Lubbers said, “Because it is need-based, I think it will primarily provide options for those who may have had a preference to exercise choice like this, but who didn’t have the means to do so. This will allow scholarship granting organizations to be created all around the state like the CHOICE [Charitable Trust] program in Indianapolis.”

Currently, the CHOICE Charitable Trust is the only scholarship granting organization in the state.

Annette “Mickey” Lentz, chancellor and executive director of the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and Faith Formation, reacted to the good news enthusiastically.

“It is a major victory for our Catholic community, which impacts our children attending Catholic schools as well as affording others with the possibility,” she said.

“The scholarship tax credit is needed because, without support from many entities, families cannot make the choices they want to educate their children in a safe, holy and healthy environment.”

Exactly when the scholarships will be available is not yet clear.

“It will take some time to set up the scholarship granting organizations, and for them to raise money and begin awarding scholarships,” Tebbe said. “The Indiana Department of Revenue and the Indiana Department of Education will also need time to promulgate specific rules and guidelines which will govern the scholarship granting organizations.

“There’s still work to be done, but more families will have access to a school choice option they never had before,” Tebbe said. “For this, we are very excited and grateful.”

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

Local site Links: