Freshman state lawmaker Jake Teshka was incredulous. He had just listened to the president of the Indiana School Board Association criticize a sweeping expansion of the school voucher program as benefiting wealthy families.
“Do you believe, that in 2021, $140,000 in a family of four is considered wealthy?” the South Bend Republican asked Robert Stwalley during Feb. 3 testimony on House Bill 1005.
“I would certainly consider it to be wealthier than the original program was designed – for the low income. Absolutely,” the Purdue University engineering professor replied. “For a family of five, that brings you up to $160,000 a year in income. That's pretty wealthy, sir.”
Median household income in Indiana is $57,603, according to census data. For a family of four, it is $90,654.
Teshka isn't the only House Republican out of touch with Hoosier families. His colleagues on the House Education Committee, as well as all Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, voted unanimously to support HB 1005. The bill goes to the full House on Monday, where the super-majority caucus appears dead set on removing already-generous income limits on vouchers and adding education savings accounts, a costly program with an extensive record of abuse in other states.
Hoosiers should demand to know the justification for handing millions in tax dollars to high-income households and private and parochial schools. How many more ways can GOP lawmakers find to take money from the schools serving 90% of Indiana's students, including the neediest?
Vouchers cost taxpayers $172 million last year alone. Overlooked are the costly programs created to lay the groundwork. It began with charter schools ($85 million in misspent public funds by Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, according to state auditors).
Two programs were then created to win voucher support from wary non-public school families. The first established Scholarship Granting Organizations ($59.6 million in tax credits since 2010, according to the Indiana Department of Revenue). It served the dual purposes of creating a voucher eligibility pathway and funneling millions of dollars to private and parochial schools. The tax credit was capped at $2.5?million a year when it began, growing quietly and steadily to $16.5 million this year.
In the 2019 tax year, 3,372 taxpayers were awarded just over $9 million in tax credits, at an average credit of $2,670. In some cases, donations are carried over because they exceed the taxpayer's tax liability, or the cap on allowable credits has already been met.
But that's not all. To appease families who earned too much for a voucher, the General Assembly created the private school/home-school tax deduction ($876.2 million in deductions allowed since 2011). In tax year 2018, 56,793 families took advantage of the credit with an average deduction of $1,807, according to the Department of Revenue.
Any taxpayer, regardless of income, who has a child enrolled in private school or home-schooled is eligible to claim up to a $1,000 deduction per child for approved educational expenses including tuition, textbooks, software and supplies. To add insult to injury, parents of public school students are not eligible for the deduction, even though Indiana is one of just nine states that charge for textbooks, which can easily top $1,000 a year for some.
Education funding decisions should be based on their benefit to students. For too long, Indiana lawmakers have based them on how well they reward parents, wealthy donors and the individuals who, in turn, reward them with millions of dollars in campaign contributions. HB 1005 is the most brazen effort yet to take Indiana tax dollars from public schools and give more to the wealthy.