Scholarships a sweet deal at taxpayer expense

Indiana’s School Scholarship Tax Credit program is “almost too good to be true,” the head of the state’s Lutheran Scholarship Granting Organization tells the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

That may be true if you’re one of the rich people getting a 50 percent kickback from the state on your contributions to private K-12 schools. Two-thirds of the credits go to Hoosiers who make more than a half million dollars a year, the JG’s Niki Kelly reports.

And it’s also a good deal for private schools like those represented by the Lutheran group and the other four Scholarship Granting Organizations that dispense the tax credits. No one else gets such generous help from the state to help with their fundraising.

But it’s arguably not so good for the Indiana taxpayers who are paying more and more money every year to fund private schools, most of them religious. And it’s not a good deal for public schools that struggle as the state sends more money to private schools.

Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of the Institute for Quality of Education, another of the Scholarship Granting Organizations, suggests that paying for the program is a wash because the state isn’t paying to educating students who might otherwise be in public school.

But that’s bogus. It’s likely that most of the scholarships are going to students who would never have attended public schools. So their schooling is an added-on cost for the state.

More significantly, any student who receives a scholarship from a Scholarship Granting Organization for one year becomes eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers for as long as his or her family remains income-eligible. And the student’s siblings get vouchers too.

Indiana’s voucher program was supposedly created to let children from poor families escape “failing” public schools. But the idea that families should first give public schools a chance was quickly dropped. As of 2014-15, over half of new voucher recipients entered the program through the scholarship program. Nearly two-thirds of new voucher recipients had never attended a public school.

As I pointed out in March, every dollar invested in a private school scholarship can return as much as $600 in taxpayer-funded school vouchers for the same child and his or her siblings.

And speaking of the Institute for Quality Education …

Fort Wayne teacher Donna Roof caught the zeitgeist with a response to Gov. Mike Pence’s comment that teachers shouldn’t “take it personally” if their students fail state tests and their schools get low grades.

Published first on the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education website, the piece stuck a nerve. It was picked up by Diana Ravitch’s blog, the Washington Post Answer Sheet and other outlets.

Tosha Salyers, communication and outreach director with the advocacy organization Hoosiers for Quality Education – a partner to the Institute for Quality Education – apparently took Roof’s complaints personally. The one-time aide to former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett wrote a rebuttal for the organization’s own blog.

Salyers responds to Roof’s pledge to campaign against Pence with this: “Make sure you’re campaigning outside of the classroom, assuming you have time after all that test prep.”

Teachers know they can’t do politics on the job. But the irony is that Bennett, Salyers’ former boss, actually did make extensive use of his elected state office to engage in political activity.

As Tom LoBianco, then with the Associated Press, reported, an investigation by the state inspector general’s office “found more than 100 instances in which Bennett or his employees potentially violated federal wire fraud law” by using state staff and property on his failed 2012 re-election campaign.

Bennett wasn’t charged with a crime but paid a $5,000 fine to settle ethics violations.

Note: A previous version of this post misstated the percentage of new voucher students who received vouchers as a result of participating in the scholarship program and the percentage who never attended a public school. Thanks to Jorge Fernandez for pointing out the error.


6 thoughts on “Scholarships a sweet deal at taxpayer expense

  1. I think the most shocking thing in this piece is the link to Tosha Salyer’s blog post on the I4QE website. As an advocate for my rural public school, I follow both sides of the issue and have interacted w/ Ms. Salyers on social media and read her work on the organization’s website. While I rarely agree with her perspective, I respect the quality of her work and consider her position, as she typically demonstrates professionalism. However, her blog post in response to Donna Roof’s piece was shockingly petty and bitter. I’m surprised it was allowed to be posted on the I4QE site. Her shallow responses provided no context whatsoever. I’ve come to expect this from SGO advocates. I didn’t expect Ms. Salyer’s blog post to sound so caustic and childish.

    Ms. Salyers states, that Donna Roof’s piece “fully displays the blatant misinformation and propaganda used in an attempt to convince Hoosiers that testing and accountability are bad for students and that our Governor and Legislature are responsible for decisions which are made by local school communities – not the government.” What she fails to own up to is that her own spouting of facts and figures and dollar amounts equates to the exact same thing – propaganda. While I value hard metrics, when they are intentionally provided without any context or thoughtful discussion, they are hogwash – only good for muddying the waters. I find it interesting that she provided no context for the dollar amounts she mentions. When I was a child, I thought $100 made someone rich. Furthermore, she repeatedly mentions that many of these decisions belong to the school district, not the governor. I would ask Tosha Salyers: What choice do they have?

    While I can’t be sure, I would bet that all of Ms. Salyer’s references to her own child’s school refer to a school that, while public, probably resides in a wealthy district with extremely low free and reduced lunch rates – a district full of kids who don’t come to school with excess baggage. Again, that’s just a guess. My district is high poverty and rural, which further complicates access to resources for kids who already come to school hungry. I wish sometimes that folks like Ms. Salyers would come and actually talk to people who reside in districts like mine, rather than taking the low road and engaging in nothing more than a spitting match.

    I’m disappointed.

    Thanks, Steve for bringing this SGO issue back to light. Great post!

    • Thanks so much for these comments. I agree 100 percent — it’s disappointing. I’m grateful every day for honest disagreement. But we should be able to disagree without being petty.

  2. I for one am opposed to public or state funding of private schools especially Religious based ones. The churches are tax exempt so they shouldn’t receive any funding from state or federal level for their faith based schools. As far as Public schools go the state and federal government should be heavily invest4ed in them considering the Education system is Compulsory.

  3. Yes, Tonya Salyers’ post was vitriolic. She is doing the job she is paid for, which is in the interests of some very wealthy people. I think it’s important to look behind her at those who have organized the Institute for Quality Education (formerly School Choice Indiana) and its related PAC, Hoosiers for Quality Education. Here are the board members of H4QED:

    Fred Klipsch, chairman
    —exec. partner of Cardinal Equity Partners, principal of Klipsch Lanham Investments, CEO of Klipsch Audio Technologies, LLC., one of the directors of the Friedman Foundation
    Jerry Slusser
    —owner of jet charter company, big donor to Mitch, Tony Bennett, friend of Mark Lubbers
    Dan Dumezich
    —tax lawyer, Deloitte Tax LLP (helps big companies avoid taxes, penalties), former state rep
    Stuart Jolly
    –Executive Political Director at Education Freedom Alliance, Oklahoma; formerly with Americans for Prosperity chapter there, 22 years with US Army
    Robert Enlow
    —president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, board member of Carpe Diem Indiana
    Robert Grand, vice chairman and secretary
    —managing partner at Barnes & Thornburg (firm Grace College is using)
    Al Hubbard
    —board member for Lumina Foundation, Simon Property Group, Economic Club, Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, Indiana Chamber of Commerce, served Bush administration in economic policy, head of E&A companies (consultants)
    Tom Longest
    Mike Weaver—former CEO of a popcorn company
    Lindsey Brown, officer
    Betsy Wiley, officer

    In other words, while the Institute for Quality Education claims to be working in part as a grassroots organization, it is an astroturf organization. It is channeling huge sums toward private schools as a Scholarship Granting Organization. You can find the group’s tax filing for the 2013 year here:

    They brought in over $8 million, if I am reading this correctly, and dispersed over $6 million. Over 95% of their revenue was from public sources, if I understand the form. It is instructive to see the list of overwhelmingly religious schools who received grant money (tuition assistance) through them.

    • Great point, Jenny. Thanks for posting. Google Jerry Slusser and you’re likely to disappear down an Internet rabbit hole.

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