FORT WAYNE – Controversial school reform in Indiana that produced publicly funded vouchers for private school students also includes a lesser-known private school scholarship program, which critics say is another way that public funds end up supporting private schools.
Despite this program’s years of existence, participation increased significantly following the passage of the state’s voucher program.
When Rob and Sara McInturf applied for a state-paid voucher to send their son Preston to a parochial school, they were told they could save about $57,000 over 12 years. And with the help of a partial scholarship directed toward Preston’s kindergarten year, the McInturfs never had to uproot him from Most Precious Blood Catholic School, where he attended preschool, to spend a year in public school.
The state’s Choice Scholarship program provides publicly funded vouchers to families meeting certain income requirements to send children to private schools. The law mandates that children spend the previous school year in a public school to be eligible for a voucher.
But a provision in the voucher law allows families of students not already attending public schools to circumvent that one-year public school requirement by receiving a scholarship associated with the program established a year before the voucher law was passed.
Supporters of the program say it provides more educational opportunities for families and saves money the state would have otherwise paid to send students to public school. Others say the program is simply a way for families to receive a tax credit on tuition payments at schools they would have chosen anyway, while also providing a mechanism for parochial schools with declining enrollment to stay afloat.
To qualify for a private school scholarship, families must have an income at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, or $85,286 for a family of four. Families apply for the scholarships through Scholarship Granting Organizations, or SGOs, that are approved by the state Department of Education. The organizations are required to maintain a nonprofit status.
Currently, five Scholarship Granting Organizations exist in the state, including two in northeast Indiana established by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and the Lutheran Schools Partnership.
To encourage giving, donors are eligible for a 50 percent tax credit for the total donation. In 2011, lawmakers approved doubling the amount of tax credits allowed to $5 million, making up to $10 million in donations eligible for tax credits. Donors can be individual or corporations and vary by organization. The Catholic diocese’s SGO has received most of its donations from corporations, Superintendent of Schools Mark Myers said.
Indiana’s private school scholarship program has been around since 2009 but has recently begun attracting more families and donations.
This school year, the tax credits likely won’t hit the $5 million cap, but the $2.2 million awarded as of Feb. 22 is nearly seven times the amount awarded in tax credits last year, according to the state Department of Revenue website.
Parochial, or religious-affiliated, and private schools are motivated by survival to create their own SGOs, said Terry Spradlin, associate director for education policy with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.
Private entities (with declining enrollment) are looking to state governments to help bail them out with the creation of these types of programs, Spradlin said.
The Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese has operated the Scholarship Granting Organization of Northeast Indiana since 2010, but until this year awarded few scholarships.
According to an independent audit of the nonprofit, it awarded just $750 in scholarships in the 2010-2011 school year.
But last school year, the SGO received 45 contributions totaling about $293,000, resulting in 661 scholarships, according to an August report filed by the SGO with the state Department of Education.
The second SGO in the area, the Lutheran Schools Scholarship Granting Organization of Indiana, is run by the Lutheran Schools Partnership, a network of Lutheran schools in northeast Indiana. It was approved by the Department of Education in November. Two other organizations are based in the Indianapolis area, and a fifth operates in southern Indiana.
‘It’s a charade’
Statewide, the number of students now receiving a voucher who had received a private school scholarship in the prior school year jumped from 537 students in 2011-2012 school year to 1,937 this academic year.
Preston McInturf is one of them. His father Rob said that last year the family received a scholarship through the Diocese’s SGO that covered half the tuition for Preston’s kindergarten year, or $1,250. The scholarship made Preston eligible for a voucher this year, which covers the full tuition at Precious Blood.
Officials of both local scholarship organizations have said their scholarships are focused on kindergarten students and other students in lower grades. Mark Muehl, director of the Lutheran Schools Partnership, said the emphasis on kindergarten students is because the scholarship provides an opportunity to then apply for a voucher the next year.
That’s the added value of a scholarship granting organization, Muehl said.
Rob and Sara McInturf said the voucher is a big help to the family’s finances, making tuition payments significantly lower.
Their other son also attends Precious Blood but didn’t receive a scholarship through the program and isn’t eligible for a voucher unless he attends public school for a year. Sara said pulling him out of his school to become eligible for a voucher just isn’t an option.
FWCS board President Mark GiaQuinta said the school district is suffering because using tax dollars to pay for vouchers siphons funds away from traditional public schools, which rarely have the opportunity to show families what they can offer.
(A tax-credit scholarship) doesn’t change where a student planned to go anyway, GiaQuinta said.
GiaQuinta said education reformers advocate that this program gives low-income families the opportunity to leave low-performing public schools, perpetuating the myth that parents are choosing between public and parochial schools.
In reality it’s morphed into a cheap means of laundering taxpayer dollars to achieve a result parents would have chosen anyway. It’s a charade. We cannot compete with religion, he said.
The two area SGOs both have religious affiliations. The majority of scholarships are awarded to students attending parochial schools, according to tax forms filed by the state’s other SGOs.
Spradlin points to steady enrollment in public schools, both traditional and charter, as evidence that the program may not be benefiting students who were previously attending public schools.
Sara McInturf said a major reason she chose Precious Blood for her sons is the religious education they receive there and the school’s small class sizes.
It’s a very close-knit community, with a lot of parent involvement, she said.
And Mark Myers, superintendent of schools of the diocese, said the program saves taxpayers money because the burden of tuition payments or scholarship donations is on private donors and private-school families. He said parents first choose Catholic schools, and it’s the schools’ role to help families like the McInturfs as much as they can. The private school scholarship is just one way to do that, he said.
Rob McInturf said Precious Blood offers other ways for families in need, like a tuition break for large families and a discount for Catholic Church members.
Sara McInturf said she couldn’t imagine sending her sons to a different school, even without the tuition help through the voucher and scholarship.
We would have found a way to make it work, she said.