When Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program was passed in 2011, it was one the largest voucher systems in America. In April, the Hoosier state legislature voted to approve a bipartisan budget that included a significant expansion of that initiative.
“Hoosier families won,” John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, told the Indiana Catholic Conference at the time. Both organizations lobbied for the expansion, which will give more middle-income parents the option to choose a faith-based education for their children.
Dr. Joseph Brettnacher, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, emphasized the impact the legislative changes will make on Catholic schools’ mission.
“The most important aspect of the Choice expansion is that more families will have the ability to send their children to faith-based schools, where students can develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ within His mystical body, the Church. Our goals for students are to create disciples of Jesus Christ, help them fulfill their destiny to become saints and reach heaven.”
As reported by the ICC, the current eligibility for vouchers stands, in most cases, at a maximum family income of 150% of the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program limit. Under guidelines that take effect for the 2021-22 school year, that threshold jumps to 300%, helping middle- and upper-middle-class families who are still struggling to pay for private school tuition.
In addition, eligible families will see increases in the dollar amounts of the vouchers their students receive. The program currently operates under three tiers, with students receiving vouchers of 50%, 70% or 90% of state tuition support based on family income. Going forward, all eligible students will receive a 90% voucher, representing 90% of the state’s tuition support for their child if the child had attended his or her local public school, eliminating the previous 50% and 70% tiers.
On the donor side, the Indiana School Scholarship Tax Credit cap also has been increased from the current $16.5 million total – the amount the entire state tax credit program can award in a fiscal year — to $17.5 million in 2021-22 and $18.5 million in Year Two of the budget.
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2021-23 budget also establishes an Education Scholarship Account program for students with special needs, with the same financial eligibility as the voucher program. The program opens for the 2022-23 school year.
Key to the success of the legislation that has opened the doors of Catholic school education to so many, was, Brettnacher mentioned, the work of Indiana Speaker Todd Huston, Rep. Tim Brown, Rep. Bob Behning, Sen. Rod Bray, Sen. Eric Bassler, Sen. Ryan Mishler and Sen. Liz Brown, among others. Elcesser and Betsy Wiley, president of the Institute for Quality Education, supported the successful legislation as well.
Many people in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend schools, and their legislative liaisons, contacted their state legislators in support of the Choice Scholarship Expansion, acknowledged Brettnacher.
“We also want to acknowledge the intercession of those who have gone before us: all the priests, brothers and sisters who taught in our school — especially saints like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, St. Andre Bessette. And we thank Bishop [Kevin C.] Rhoades for his steadfast support of our Catholic schools, in addition to all the diocesan bishops before him.”
‘Room to breathe’
For some families, the increases will immediately change their children’s educational options. Those for whom Catholic education was previously not financially viable are now likely to find it to now be within reach.
Other families, like the Glenn family of Fort Wayne, say the change will give them “room to breathe.”
Dedicated to prioritizing a Catholic school education for their six children, the Glenns moved from Warsaw — which has no Catholic high school — to Fort Wayne when their oldest was of an age to enroll.
“We wanted a smaller school, and the religion class: We wanted a school where the teachers would reiterate what we’re teaching at home,” said mom Mackenzie. Two have since graduated from Bishop Luers High School, one is a student there now and three attend St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s grade school.
“We’re still kind of wrapping our head around it, but we think it will help us to be able to do the other activities they’re interested in – the sporting events, the camps, the extracurricular things outside of school,” Glenn shared.
Even with the previous state vouchers and other scholarships, “We’ve never paid less than 50% tuition,” she shared. To compensate, they limited other activities. “There was a lot of either/or.” The summers were “off,” meaning they engaged few outings, teams or camps.
“I feel like this is going to help us tremendously to be able to do those things more often: go to the zoo, go to the movies,” Glenn said. “We’re excited: This is going to take some of the stress off our shoulders.”
Although she is grateful for the time the family spent together, having more flexibility in the budget will allow a little breathing room – especially now that three of the children drive.
“For a long time, it was a struggle to stay afloat. … Now, we’ll have a little more money to help with the bills for flat tires, new tires, things like that.”
The Wes and Stephanie Lantz family of Warsaw were similarly excited to hear the news of the program’s expansion. Stephanie is a stay-at-home mother to their three children, who attend Sacred Heart School.
“It takes a little financial pressure off of us, for sure. It also opens doors for us for middle school and high school, for them to be able to progress in their Catholic education. Financially, that was going to be burdensome, going into higher education. … We love our faith, so we would have figured something out. But this is a bonus for us, to not have to worry about not spending money on this or that, so we can save for school. With me hopefully volunteering in the school again this year, instead of working, this will take the pressure off.”
Secretary for Catholic Education Carl Loesch expressed gratitude to legislators and the Indiana Non-Public Education Association for advocating for more families to have the opportunity to choose the school that best fits their child. He also lauded the efforts of diocesan schools to provide a quality Catholic education, even during Covid.
“Our Catholic schools, our teachers and our administrators have done an excellent job during the pandemic keeping our schools open as much as possible. This comes from our core beliefs that our Catholic faith is incarnational, sacramental and relational,” he said. “Young people are formed best when they can relate in person with their teachers and their peers. We are grateful that this new legislation will allow us to welcome more students and families who want to partner with Catholic schools for the formation of their children.
“Contact your local Catholic school to schedule a visit to see the difference a Catholic education can make for your child.”
To learn more about the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program visit www.diocesefwsb.org/schools.
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