School voucher re­funds draw over­sight ques­tions

Post-Tribune - - Region / Business -

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.”

| POST-TRI­BUNE FILE PHOTO

Kinder­garten teacher Susan Mac­nak works with stu­dent Franco Ne­varez at Aquinas Catholic Com­mu­nity School in Mer­ril­lville.

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