School voucher refunds draw oversight questions
INDIANAPOLIS — The refunding of nearly $4 million in Indiana private school voucher money to the state has raised questions about oversight of the program that now includes almost 30,000 students.
The Indiana Non-Public Education Association said in mid-December that 80 of the more than 300 private schools participating in the program made errors in calculating voucher costs over the past three years.
House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, who was a leading sponsor of the 2011 bill that created the voucher program, said legislators should look into simpler rules for the system and ways to better track compliance.
“I don’t know that we’ve found the right formula to make sure it’s enforced,” Behning, R-Indianapolis, told The Indianapolis Star.
Indiana’s voucher program has grown quickly since it started three years ago limited to 7,500 low-income students who had to have attended public school for at least one year to qualify.
About four times as many students are receiving vouchers as legislators have broadened eligibility to include more children who’ve not been in the public schools. The state paid out about $81 million for vouchers last year.
John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said the $3.9 million in returned voucher payments show that the private schools in the program are policing themselves.
The maximum voucher payment is $4,800 per elementary school student, but the state law limits schools to accepting no more than the student’s family would be charged without the voucher.
The excessive payments often resulted from private schools not applying the appropriate tuition discounts for parishioners, employees or families with more than one child enrolled, Elcesser said.
“Philosophically, schools subsidize those families (as) a way of trying to keep their tuition affordable,” he said. “Technically, now the schools are subsidizing the state, because the family is still getting discounted tuition.”
The state Department of Education doesn’t have the legal authority to audit the voucher program, agency spokesman Daniel Altman said.
Rep. Greg Porter, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said he worries the refunded voucher amount is just the tip of the iceberg — and that Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s proposal to lift the voucher payment limit could make the problem worse.
“If the governor’s going to remove the caps even further, that means more public dollars will be flowing to vouchers, to private schools, and there won’t be any oversight,” said Porter, D-Indianapolis.
Elcesser said that mistakes with the voucher payments might be inevitable.
“I think when you’re dealing with things that are complex — which is true for most state programs — and you’re dealing with 317 schools, and four or five people out at each of those schools, there’s going to be misinterpretations,” he said. “There are going to be errors.”
Kindergarten teacher Susan Macnak works with student Franco Nevarez at Aquinas Catholic Community School in Merrillville.