Timely reminder: Tuition funding program is about helping families
By Steve Euvino
Northwest Indiana Catholic
MERRILLVILLE – With vouchers becoming increasingly popular, two of its strongest proponents want to ensure that everyone is on the same page – doing things the right way.
Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, and John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, met with Diocese of Gary school officials April 10 to review the Choice Scholarship program, commonly known as vouchers.
"What one person does will have consequences down the way," said Tebbe, who represents the five Indiana bishops in public policy matters with the state legislature. "What you do does affect people elsewhere."
Tebbe said later he and Elcesser did not come to St. Joan of Arc's parish hall to accuse any school or parish of wrongdoing. Tebbe wanted to go over the basics behind vouchers and address any questions or concerns.
Tebbe does not anticipate lawmakers doing away with vouchers for now, but he does expect more caution downstate about the program and a greater call for accountability.
"Keep our integrity and do it the right way, and we'll be good," Tebbe said.
Addressing principals, business managers, support staff, and one pastor, Elcesser said he and Tebbe have made similar presentations across the state to faith-based groups and others in private education.
With $81 million in state funds going this year to voucher schools, "that's a huge, huge blessing for many families," Elcesser said. "We are so blessed in the state of Indiana to promote opportunities for kids."
The INPEA director stressed families, not schools or parishes, when discussing vouchers. The goal of the voucher program, Elcesser said, has been to assist families receive private education that they might otherwise not afford. Although the money goes to schools, he continued, vouchers are not intended as a benefit to or an additional funding source for the school or parish.
Since its beginning with the 2011-12 school year, the Indiana voucher program – one of the most liberal in the country – has grown. According to the Indiana Department of Education, from the 3,911 voucher students in that initial year, the program has expanded to 9,139 students during 2012-13 and 19,809 for 2013-14.
Financially, eligible voucher award amounts have also grown, the IDOE reports, from $16.2 million in 2011-12 to $37.3 million during 2012-13 to nearly $81.1 million for the current school term.
Locally, voucher students have continued to increase, from nearly 400 during 2011-12 to 1,482 this school term, according to Diocesan Schools Office figures. All 20 schools in the Diocese of Gary are state-approved for vouchers.
In addition, the Diocese of Gary, through funds raised in the Catholic Services Appeal campaign, offers $500,000 to families for tuition support. However, as Dr. Barbara O'Block, diocesan school superintendent, reported, families who receive a state voucher are not eligible for diocesan tuition aid.
Tebbe and Elcesser reminded school officials to review tuition policies, to ensure that what schools charge makes them fiscally viable, yet affordable.
"You can't treat voucher kids differently," Tebbe said. "You can't charge the state more than you're charging the family."
Elcesser added that vouchers are not about evangelizing, but about helping families make choices. Don't tie religious values or this notion of "save our schools" to vouchers, he added.
"Talk about the importance of vouchers to kids and families and the positive impact on kids' lives," Elcesser said. "I have no doubt, this program is changing lives."
Schools or parishes have questions on vouchers should contact the IDOE, the two speakers said.
While there is an indirect benefit through vouchers to private schools, Tebbe said this state program is in sync with Catholic social teaching. The state has an obligation, the ICC director said, to find ways to support parents, the first and primary educators of children.
"Assist parents ... is what this program does," Tebbe said. "Keep that in mind, who we are as Church."