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Indiana voucher memo confuses, concerns districts

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A memo that sparked concern among Indiana's school districts by saying they would begin losing funding this month under the state's new private school voucher law was sent "prematurely" several months before the first funding reductions take place, a state education official says.

School leaders across the state received the memo in September showing the varying amounts each school district would lose in November to support the state-funded voucher program, the Journal and Courier of Lafayette reported.

Tippecanoe School Corp. Chief Financial Officer Kim Fox said the letter showed that her north-central Indiana district would lose more than $80,000 in state funding in November under the voucher program.

"When we received the memo, it came as quite a shock because we weren't planning for it," Fox said.

She and other local school officials were shocked because they had been told they would see no funding reduction in the current calendar year — and that money for the vouchers would be deducted from their regularly scheduled tuition support payments twice a year, starting next year.

They took their concerns to state lawmakers, who were also puzzled by the memo about the voucher program, which grants tax-based scholarships for low- and middle-income families to attend private schools.

State Rep. Randy Truitt, who voted in favor of the voucher bill, said the memo was a misunderstanding and that "the fear of another reduction is totally unfounded."

State Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Sample said the memo has been sent out too early. She said any funding reduction districts will see will come through their regularly scheduled tuition support payments, the first of which is in February.

"We sent that out prematurely, and we heard a lot of feedback that that didn't represent what they thought was going to happen. We fielded a lot of those concerns and agreed with them," Sample said.

The September memo isn't the first time the state's education agency has misinterpreted the law. In July, the agency released new teacher contract forms for the 2011-12 school year that a Marion County judge later declared illegal.

"There's definitely a lot of ambition at the Statehouse regarding the DOE, and I think that urgency that is kind of out there, that ambition, that overeagerness — I think sometimes you can get ahead of yourself on a decision," said Tippecanoe School Corp. Superintendent Scott Hanback.

Final enrollment numbers released earlier this month show that Indiana's voucher program has seen the largest first-year turnout of any voucher program in the nation.

Statewide, 3,919 students received more than $16 million in state-funded scholarships to attend private and mostly religious schools. The number of participants was capped at 7,500 for the program's first year.

The Indiana State Teacher's Association is backing a legal challenge to the voucher law.

A principal argument of proponents of the voucher program was that by issuing scholarships in amounts less than what the public school would have spent on that student's education, the program would save money.

For example, if a district gets $6,000 for a student and that student received a $4,500 scholarship, the additional $1,500 would somehow be returned to education funding.

But how that return will be made — whether to the pot of education funding prior to it being divvied up among districts or to each district in an amount proportional to the number of students that district lost to vouchers — is not yet clear.

"That's something I don't think we're ready to talk about yet," Sample said.

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