Voucher supporters, foes disagree on financial impact

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A new report says Indiana's school voucher program ran up a $53.2 million deficit, but backers of the program say it actually represents a net savings to taxpayers.

The program's deficit grew from about $40 million from one year earlier, according to the report issued Monday by the Indiana Department of Education, run by Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who opposes vouchers. The program grew 12 percent during the school year to 32,686 students.

School choice advocates say the program saves taxpayers money because vouchers provide, at most, 90 percent of the funding that a traditional public school would receive per student.

The state Education Department bases its $53.2 million deficit calculation on the assumption that any voucher student who never attended public school would have otherwise paid to attend private school, therefore creating no cost to taxpayers.

"There's no question that it's not costing the state what it would cost them if they were in public school," said Rep. Robert Behning, the Indiana House's education policy leader and a leading sponsor of the 2011 bill that created the voucher program.

Robert Enlow, CEO of the Friedman Foundation, which supports vouchers, said the calculation amounts to the department trying to score political points.

"The idea that somehow this program is costing the state money is frankly insane," Enlow said.

The voucher program technically came in under budget. For the fiscal year ending in June, lawmakers budgeted $156 million for the program but spent $131 million. Opponents, though, say the vouchers divert money from public schools.

The main purpose behind the formula used by the Education Department to estimate the impact was created by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which required the calculation. Beginning in 2015, lawmakers removed the requirement, but Ritz's agency continues to use the calculation and release its results "to support government transparency," said Samantha Hart, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

State Rep. Terri Austin, an Anderson Democrat, said she's struggled with finding a balance of giving parents a choice and the state's decision to spend taxpayer dollars to support private education.

"I do think we're going to have to have some hard conversations about the fiscal cost to the state," Austin said.

A survey released by the Friedman Foundation showed that the main reason parents decided to have their children leave their previous school was the school lacked religious environment/instruction (31 percent), followed by academic quality (29 percent) and lack of morals/character/values instruction (27 percent).

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