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Expanded voucher debate hits Senate

Private schools want more students, more money

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By Samm Quinn

Leaders at some of the state's private schools told the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee on Tuesday they'd be able to accept more students and expand their schools if the amount they receive for each state voucher student went up.

Andrew Hart, director of the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, said his school has a waiting list.

"There are more families that wish to enroll their children than we have capacity for," Hart said.

But he said the voucher - currently capped for elementary schools at $4,500 - is too low to cover all the costs of educating a student and therefore discourages expansion to make more room.

Hart said the cost for one year of education at the Oaks Academy is $9,000 per student, which helps pay for small class sizes and competitive salaries for teachers.

The House has passed legislation that included a $500-per-year increase in the voucher cap through 2015, which - if the full increase had been in effect today - would mean $3.8 million more for private schools.

That version of House Bill 1003 also made additional changes meant to make far more students eligible for the program, which uses money otherwise earmarked for public schools to send students to private schools.

But the Senate Education Committee dropped the voucher increase to just $100 per year and pulled back on the voucher expansion. On Tuesday, the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee made additional changes but opted not to increase the voucher amounts.

If the bill becomes law as amended on Tuesday, private school vouchers would continue to be less than the amounts that public schools would receive if the student stayed there.

Chuck Weisenbach, principal of Roncalli High School, said his program has been encouraged to accept more students, including those with special needs.

"That's an expensive endeavor," he said. "We're providing the services. Wherever the child is going, that's where the funding should go."

But Democrat lawmakers argued more funding for private schools would negatively impact public school children.

Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, said properly funding private schools is just as important as school choice.

The one million children attending public schools, he said, will be affected by each dollar given to private schools.

"It troubles me that one million students are being asked to give up some much for so few," he said.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said he was concerned with more voucher funding because private schools are able to pick and choose which students attend their school - although they're required to use a lottery system to choose voucher students who meet their entrance criteria. They're also able to ask students who aren't achieving to leave, he said.

But Weisenbach said Roncalli High School has only asked four or five students to leave the school in the 20 years he's been there.

Skinner complained that nobody knows how much a voucher expansion will actually cost or what lasting effects it will have. Gail Zeherails, who represents the Indiana State Teacher's Association, agreed, saying there's a many unknowns with the proposed bill.

But she commended the Senate committee for adding language that requires a study of the two-year-old voucher program.

After two hours of public testimony and debate, the bill passed the committee 8-4. It now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

Samm Quinn is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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