January 25, 2012 // Local

Lawmakers propose expanding school choice eligibility to students currently attending non-public schools

INDIANAPOLIS — It could be a dream come true for Catholic school families — access to the choice scholarship program, also known as a state-funded voucher.

Three state lawmakers are offering proposals to be considered by the Indiana General Assembly this year to expand eligibility for school choice options to families with children currently enrolled in a non-public school.

Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, is proposing the most expansive of the three school choice bills this year. Eckerty’s proposal, SB 198, would remove the eligibility requirement that a student must attend a public school two semesters prior to receiving the scholarship. If families meet income requirements, children currently enrolled in a non-public school would be eligible for the scholarships.

Eckerty says his bill is primarily “corrective” in nature to the education reforms passed last year.

“Under the current program, before a child can qualify for the school choice scholarship, the student must be enrolled in a public school for two semesters prior,” said Eckerty. There isn’t any reason or logic behind that. If you already have a child in a non-public school and qualify for the scholarship otherwise, the family should be able to receive the scholarship,”

“It becomes problematic for the family and the child to be pulled from the non-public school and placed in a public school when the student is doing fine in the non-public school,” said Eckerty. “But to a single mother, or a family struggling to make ends meet, a parent may do this to qualify for the scholarship.

“Parental choice is what it’s all about. It is the decision of the parent, not anyone else, to decide what’s best for their children,” said Eckerty.

In addition, Eckerty said the legislation has a cost benefit to the state. Eckerty said it roughly costs the state an average of $5,500 to educate a student in public school. The voucher is only $4,500.

“So do the math,” said Eckerty. “It saves the state about $1,000 per student. The bill is a positive for the parents and a positive for the state.”

Catholic lawmaker Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also is proposing legislation to assist current non-public school families. Leising’s proposal, SB 296, would give students, who are currently enrolled in a non-public school, an opportunity to qualify for the scholarship tax credit (STC) in grade eight. Once eligible for the STC, students could be eligible for a voucher for high school. Present law prohibits current non-public students, not previously receiving a STC scholarship, from being eligible for the voucher.

Sen. Leising explained that under the current STC guidelines, kindergartners who meet the income requirements that are eligible for the STC then would be eligible for a state-funded voucher in first grade.

“So what I’m trying to do is allow eighth graders to be eligible for a scholarship tax credit, which could allow them to be eligible potentially to receive a school voucher for ninth grade and the rest of their high school years,” said Leising.

“I think it would be really helpful for parents, who want to keep their kids in a private school but aren’t sure how to do so financially,” said Leising. “This bill gives parents who are trying to do what’s best for their children a little bit of relief.”

“People interested in this issue could be very helpful in getting this passed by giving their senators a little nudge,” said Leising. “I would encourage parents to contact their senators and ask them to support SB 296.”

Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Bremen, is authoring a bill, SB 331, which would provide eligibility for siblings in families who receive a voucher.

“What I’m trying to do in this bill is to help families out that are already receiving vouchers,” said Yoder. “It’s unfair to ask families who are receiving a voucher for an older child to require their younger sibling to start at a public school first, but that’s what the law requires.”

Yoder said he’s heard from many of his constituents that this is really a problem for families.

“It’s not fair to split up the siblings especially when they meet the income requirements to qualify for the voucher,” said Yoder. “It puts an unnecessary burden on parents to have children in two different schools.

“I don’t think families should have to try out the public school for each child especially when they have other children who are having success in the non-public school,” said Yoder.

Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference executive director, said, “The Church is supportive of school choice and these measures to expand eligibility. Many of our school families with low to moderate incomes could benefit greatly from these measures, and I’m hopeful they will pass this year.”

Members of the Senate Education Committee will review the bills during their scheduled hearing Jan. 25. Testimony will be given on the bills. If the bills pass committee, they will move to the Senate floor for a second reading.

Choice scholarships-Vouchers

(Source — Legislative Services Agency Fiscal Analysis SB 198)

There are 3,919 students currently receiving choice scholarships (vouchers). With 3,382 of the students who attended public schools the prior year and 537 students who received a scholarship from a scholarship-granting organization the prior year.

There are approximately 26,630 students attending private schools and were eligible for free or reduced lunch — who meet the income requirements to be eligible for the choice scholarship if SB 198 passes. The students would be eligible for a scholarship equal to 90 percent of the tuition support of the school corporation where the student resides, with a maximum scholarship of $4,500 for elementary schools.

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