‘Scholarship granting organizations’ drive Indiana voucher expansion

Donations for private school scholarships yield big returns from taxpayers

Here’s a feature of Indiana’s school voucher program that we critics may have overlooked. The program’s rapid growth is being driven by the awarding of vouchers to students who previously received private school scholarships – even small ones – from what the state calls scholarship granting organizations.

Credit Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Publication Education for calling attention to the situation in a column highlighting findings of the annual school voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

The DOE report reveals that nearly two-thirds of first-time voucher recipients in 2014-15 had never attended a public school. And over half of the 13,000 new voucher recipients qualified because they or a sibling had previously received a scholarship from a nonprofit scholarship granting organization.

“This is simply giving vouchers not to those low-income families who wanted to make a choice but to families who had already made the choice and now just want the taxpayers to pay for their child’s private or religious education,” Smith writes.

As Smith suggests, many of these families are not low-income. Scholarships from scholarship granting organizations – and the resulting vouchers – are available to families that make up to 370 percent of the federal poverty rate: over $100,000 for a family of five.

When the voucher program was created in 2011, Gov. Mitch Daniels sold the idea as a way to let poor kids escape “failing” public schools; he said they would have to attend a public school for a year to qualify. Later the program was expanded to let in siblings; special-needs students; and students who, if not for a voucher, would attend a public school that got an F on Indiana’s grading system.

Those are the voucher routes that attracted most of the attention. But from the start, students could also qualify if they previously received support from a state-approved scholarship granting organization, under a tax credit program that pre-dated vouchers. Continue reading

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Voucher program growing – and changing

Indiana’s school voucher population is getting whiter, more affluent – and a whole lot bigger. That’s the conclusion to draw from a report on the voucher program released this week by the Indiana Department of Education. A few highlights:

  • More than 29,000 students are getting vouchers, seven times as many as when the program started in 2011-12 and a 46 percent increase from a year ago.
  • 61 percent of voucher students are non-Hispanic white, up from 46 percent in the first year. That’s despite the fact that most voucher enrollment is in urban areas.
  • Only 31 percent of voucher students are African-American or Hispanic, down from 44 percent the first year.
  • Three in 10 are from higher-income families that receive less than the full voucher amount, double the percentage in the first year of the program.

Indiana taxpayers are paying more than $116 million this year for tuition at 314 private schools – nearly all of them religious schools, and almost all of those Christian schools.

And vouchers are going to families that are far from poor.

For a family that makes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, students get 90 percent of what it would cost for them to attend the local public school, typically over $5,000 a year. (The amount is currently capped at $4,800 for grades K-8).

Students from families earning up to 277 percent of the poverty level qualify for 50 percent of the cost of attending the local public school. And they don’t lose the vouchers if the family’s income rises, up to 370 percent of poverty. Continue reading

More evidence Indiana vouchers are about teaching religion

Parents are using Indiana school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships to provide their children with religious education at taxpayer expense. That’s the finding that jumps out from a recent survey of private school parents by three pro-voucher Indiana organizations.

The survey found that more than half of parents who used vouchers to transfer their kids to private schools did so in part because they didn’t like the fact that public schools don’t teach religion. And more than two-thirds chose their current school for its religious instruction or environment.

That’s not the only motive parents listed. Survey participants were invited to check multiple reasons, and many did. The most common: Three in five disliked the “academic quality” of their public school; nearly 80 percent chose their current school for “academics.”

The Friedman Foundation, which conducted the survey with School Choice Indiana and the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, seized on that result. “Survey: Voucher parents chose private schools for better academics,” says the headline on its press release about the results.

But academic quality means different things to different people. (I guarantee it has very different meaning for me than for some of my close friends).  Continue reading

Denial of school voucher data raises accountability issues

It’s a fundamental principle of government transparency: When a government agency spends the public’s money, the public should know who is getting paid and how much.

That’s why it’s disturbing that the Indiana Department of Education rejected requests from the Monroe County Community School Corp. and the Bloomington Herald-Times for information about students who receive state vouchers to attend private schools.

This isn’t a clear-cut case. It pits the principles of transparency and accountability against reasonable concerns about privacy. If the state discloses information about voucher recipients, should it also reveal who receives need-based state aid for college? Should it name people who get food stamps or other public assistance?

Disclosing information about individual students also could run afoul of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The H-T appealed the denial of its request to state Public Access Counselor Luke Britt; and Britt cited FERPA in upholding the DOE decision.

But FERPA seems to make less sense as grounds for withholding data from the MCCSC. It is entrusted, after all, with information about 10,000 students who attend local schools. Continue reading