February 5, 2010

Church opposes state proposal to delay school choice tax credit in Indiana

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Should school choice be an option only for the wealthy?

The Church doesn’t think so. This explains why the Indiana Catholic Conference is opposing a bill which would place a two-year delay on the implementation of a new parental choice tax credit which passed during the special budget session of the Indiana General Assembly last June. (Related: The Church’s position on school choice)

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, chairman of the House Education Committee, unexpectedly inserted such language into House Bill 1367 during a Jan. 25 committee meeting. Rep. Porter’s action, he explained to the committee, was due in part to a concern that funding for public education is being cut. The bill passed in the committee 6-5.

There is also a perceived fear among school choice opponents, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, the primary supporter of Rep. Porter’s bill, that any reduction of state money—especially funds that could benefit non-public schools—could be detrimental to public education.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who serves as the ranking minority member on the House Education Committee, said, “I believe we need to be giving our parents and students more options, not fewer. This bill goes after charter schools, virtual charter schools which we piloted, and it goes after the scholarship tax credit which we’ve worked long and hard to put in place.

“For the first time in history, Hoosier families have a real choice in education—especially those of lower incomes will have options they have never had before.

“The scholarship tax credit saves taxpayers money,” Rep. Behning said. “The argument was made that those supporting the bill were looking for ways to help the state save money and help public schools. But there is no logical reason why these would be included on the list other than there is a philosophical opposition to them.”

In addition to concerns raised by the Indiana Catholic Conference, other groups testifying in opposition to the bill included the Charter Schools Association, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the Indiana Non-Public Schools Association, the Friedman Foundation, the Indiana Department of Education and the Governor’s Office.

“All children should have the opportunity to attend the school of their parent’s choice regardless of the family’s financial means,” said Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference executive director, who serves as the official spokesman for the Catholic Church in Indiana on matters of public policy.

Since June 2009, education officials in each diocese in the state have been actively working with community members to create a Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO) so that children could be awarded scholarships beginning in the fall of 2010.

“If this bill passes, it will be a real setback to those who have been working to award scholarships to families who wish to attend a public or non-public school of their choice,” Tebbe said. “The bigger disappointment would be for the hundreds of families with school children who had hoped to receive a scholarship this fall [2010], and the chance at a better educational fit for their children.”

In the Diocese of Evansville, Linda Cox, executive director for the Catholic Foundation for Southwestern Indiana, said, “All of the private accredited schools in southwestern Indiana have come together to form a SGO for our area called the Tuition Assistance Fund of Southwestern Indiana.

“We have established a formal corporation, have a board, advisory committees and volunteers to put this legislation into effect immediately,” Cox said. “We are currently soliciting donations, working on applications for students and have communicated this information to the community within our 12-county geographical area.”

Cox said the organization is looking at awarding scholarships this first year at a maximum amount of $3,000 to as many students as donations will allow.

“We have received calls from families who are already looking to apply for these scholarships,” she said. “If this legislation is repealed or delayed, it will mean that hundreds of families will be denied the opportunity to attend their choice of private education.”

The scholarship tax credit would offer a 50 percent tax credit incentive to corporations or individuals for donations made to qualified Scholarship Granting Organizations. These SGOs would then provide grants to qualifying families for school tuition or other school-related costs at the public or private school of the parents’ choice.

Scholarship eligibility is based primarily on a family’s income. Income eligibility is based on 200 percent or twice the income for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

For example, a family of four could have an annual maximum income of $78,000. Larger families with higher income levels may also be eligible. A student must be enrolling in kindergarten or enrolled in a public school during the preceding school year to be eligible. If a student has received a scholarship in the previous year from a qualifying SGO, they may also be eligible.

House Bill 1367 is eligible for a second reading in the House. All bills must have been passed by their house of origin by Feb. 3 to move forward in the process.

(Bridget Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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