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Lawmakers push school vouchers


February 02, 2011
In an effort to provide parents with more choices, significant changes may be coming to Indiana's educational system, as state lawmakers are considering legislation that would expand charter schools and create a statewide voucher program. The potential changes, however, are being met with skepticism by some.

Gov. Mitch Daniels, in his State of the State address on Jan. 11, lauded charter schools and referred to taxpayer-funded school vouchers that would assist parents with tuition costs to send their children to another public or private school as a matter of justice.

"For families who cannot find the right traditional public school, or the right charter public school for their child, and are not wealthy enough to move near one, justice requires that we help," Daniels said. "We should let these families apply dollars that the state spends on their child to the non-government school of their choice."

House Bill 1003, authored by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, and Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, would allow qualifying families to be eligible for taxpayer-funder vouchers. With Republicans controlling sizable majorities in both the House and Senate, it's likely that some form of the legislation will be sent to Daniels.

The value of the vouchers, referred to in the bill as "school choice scholarships," would be determined by the amount of per-student aid given by the state to the student's home school district, which varies throughout Indiana, along with the student's family's income level. The tuition cost of the school in which the student would be enrolling would not be considered.

The proposed bill, which has been referred to the Education Committee, calls for students whose annual household income is no more than 250 percent of the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program — that amount for a family of four for the 2010-11 school year is $101,982 based on an income level of $40,793 — to be eligible for vouchers worth 25 percent of their home district's per-student state aid. Lower-income students could receive vouchers valued at 50 percent, with the most needy — those who qualify for the federal lunch program — eligible for vouchers worth 90 percent.

The amount of state aid per student in the Crawford County Community School Corp. this school year is about $5,800. Therefore, a family of four earning $101,982 would be able to receive a voucher for approximately $1,450, while households that qualify for the federal lunch program would be eligible for $5,220.

School corporations, however, possibly could lose the entire state aid amount for voucher students, not just the amount of the vouchers, as the state may keep the balance. The state already has cut school funding considerably during the past couple of years — Crawford County now receives about $1.1 million less than it did — and additional loss of funding could cause programs and staff to be cut.

"If you lose 12 kids, the funding for a teaching position is gone," Crawford County Superintendent Dr. Mark Eastridge said.

The problem, he explained, is that those enrollment losses may be spread out among the grades, thus not necessitating the need for one less teaching position.

"So, that's the challenge. It's not going to align to where you lose kids," Eastridge said.

It is unclear how many, if any, Crawford County students would apply for a voucher. The elementary schools are among the highest rated in the state, with three being among the approximately 40 Indiana schools (including high schools) to have been named a federal No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School. In addition, annual test scores at the junior-senior high school are on the upswing, and the corporation appears to be on the verge of receiving district-wide accreditation, which only a few corporations in the state have.

However, Eastridge said, it is important for the corporation to keep improving so that, if state lawmakers do approve a voucher program or expand charter schools, Crawford County won't be challenged. One way to do that at the high school is to build on its distance-learning program, providing ways for students to earn college credit while still in school.

Even with vouchers, many families could still be dissuaded by the tuition costs of private schools. With tuition for the 2010-11 school year at one private school in Southern Indiana at $4,950 to $5,775, depending on the grade, some families could still be left with a significant amount to pay after a voucher. Another hurdle could be the lack of available busing to private schools. That could be especially detrimental to students in rural areas, like Crawford County, that are some distance from the nearest private schools.

In addition, private schools would not be required to accept students with vouchers, and many possibly would choose not to as the acceptance of voucher students would require the schools to be subject to the same accountability standards as public schools. That includes receiving an annual letter grade — A to F — based on how well they educated students.

Legal challenges also would appear likely since taxpayer money, in a roundabout way, would end up going to many private schools whose curricula are based, at least in part, on religious beliefs and may be unconstitutional.

The outcome of such challenges wouldn't be certain, as courts have ruled both ways on vouchers elsewhere. A voucher program in Cleveland that began in 1995 was struck down by a federal district court after being upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court. The district court's decision later was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which deemed the program constitutional. Yet, in Florida, state legislation to create a school voucher system was ruled unconstitutional by that state's supreme court.

"The question is, should taxpayer money be used to support various religious ideologies?" Daniel Holm, an associate professor of elementary education at Indiana University South Bend, recently wrote in a column for several newspapers throughout the state. "Using taxpayer money to support religious-based private schools would seem in direct conflict with our country's tradition of the separation of church and state."

At the federal level, bi-partisan legislation was introduced last week to revive the District of Columbia's school voucher program. The current D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has been lauded by parents of children who received the vouchers, has dwindled from about 1,700 low-income participants to about 700 since the Obama administration and Congress cut funding in 2009 and prevented new students from participating.

Despite the legislation — the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act — being backed by Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate, its fate is uncertain, especially in the Senate, where Democrats, who traditionally have opposed voucher programs, have the majority.

The Indiana House is also considering legislation that would make it easier for charter schools — public schools that are nonsectarian and nonreligious that are overseen by a sponsor, such as a university — to be established. The bill — HB 1002 — is co-authored by Behning, Bosma and fellow Republican Rep. Cindy Noe (Indianapolis), along with Democratic Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan (Indianapolis), and has made its way out of committee.

There currently are 61 charter schools in Indiana, but only two — Community Montessori in New Albany and Rock Creek Community Academy, both sponsored by Ball State University — in this part of Southern Indiana.

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