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Indiana Vouchers Will Help Fix Church Steeples

Guest post by Phyllis Bush.

Vouchers approved in the state of Indiana are prompting creative bookkeeping on the part of Catholic school leaders, with a significant boon to the churches that run them. A recent talk by Father Jake of St. Jude parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana, indicates that, thanks to the impending influx of tax dollars, the church will soon be getting a repaired air conditioning system, redecorating the church, new paint, and repairs to the church steeple. 

Ever since the corporate education reform movement has taken hold in Indiana, I have felt as though I have been moving from one island of rage to the next.   However, yesterday when I watched the video presented by St. Jude's (Fort Wayne) about their "tuition reconfiguration" due to additional voucher moneys, it was apparent that all of the unintended consequences of vouchers that I have been concerned about had finally come to fruition. [Note: The video was originally posted here, but has since been removed. It is still available here.)

Because I have had serious issues with the expansion of vouchers/choice/opportunity (choose your own euphemism) scholarships, I was curious to listen to St. Jude's plan for spending their "choice scholarship" dollars.  Twice I listened and took notes from the video and the accompanying letter to make sure that I was being fair.  (Note: The numbers in parentheses indicate where these quotes are found on the video.)

In his letter to the parish, Father Jake beseeches his audience to apply for (voucher) assistance.  He writes that "this program requires everyone to ask for assistance....I ask everyone to view this, not so much as outside assistance, but, rather, your willingness to allow the parish to share the responsibility for the education of your children. Your willingness to share this responsibility with the parish allows us to fulfill the mission God has given us."  On first blush, this letter seems rather benign; however, in effect, it is not so subtly asking parishioners to "game the system."

Even though Father Jake, the narrator on the video, seems very affable and pleasant, his presentation is neither circumspect nor mature.  In fact, the presentation borders on cavalier when the audience is told that the choice scholarship comes with "no strings attached" (minute 39:37).  As I listened to the presentation, I was appalled when he said that most of the students who are accepting vouchers are already attending St. Jude's (minute 40:57).  Wasn't one of the selling points of "opportunity scholarships" to reach out to economically disadvantaged students so that they could attend the private school of their choice?  Weren't students to qualify for vouchers based on the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Guidelines?  

Father Jake says with a chuckle that scholarships must be based on need, but the parish is free to determine what this means (minute 39.47). He says that since the Indiana Supreme Court says that vouchers are constitutionally allowable because the money goes to the tax payer, so the Indiana Choice Scholarship comes essentially with no strings (minute 42:00).  Father Jake goes on to say that he doesn't see the program going away because the state of Indiana is saving millions of dollars a year by taking $4700  off the top of the funding formula to give to voucher kids rather than spending the $7000 per public school child in the state formulation.  So, the state saves over $2000 per student, but at what cost to our community schools?

Much of the first part of the video is to explain how the system works and how to apply.  However, the "voucher plot begins to thicken" when the narrator talks about how the scholarships will help alleviate the budget problems of the whole parish budget so that there will be money to spend on redecorating the church and fixing the steeple and working on other projects, including installing a new sound system and lighting for the church. Because the church will now have the funds to pay for things that they haven't been able to keep up with...like deferred maintenance issues, the whole parish will see an improvement.   As the narrator refers to his "dream list of improvements" that the church needs or really wants but hasn't been able to do, he notes that  (voucher) system is really going to be able to help fulfill this wish list (minute 49:50).

While the use of this "voucher" windfall will help the school to accomplish its goals, not once did I hear any mention about students or students' needs. Not once did I hear any mention of offering any services for special needs kids. Not once did I hear any  talk about professional development for teachers. Not once was there a mention remediation or enrichment programs.  Nor did I hear anything about providing meals for the neediest children.  The only mention that I heard of student needs was when he once complained that St. Jude's is being hurt by the state A-F grading system in the same way that public schools are; his complaint was that their school had a hard time showing a letter grade improvement because their scores were already so high.

All of this is bothersome to me because I keep hearing how vouchers are giving kids living in poverty a better chance and giving their parents a choice.  After listening to this presentation, it seems to me that the children who are attending this school would have gone there regardless of vouchers. There is evidence also that this has been the case with other schools which accept vouchers.

Doesn't this fly in the face of the argument that the voucher proponents have been using? 

While I am sure that some legislators would say that this is only one school, I would argue that this school is not the only religious/private school that will be using vouchers to expand and to build more schools. 

To this, I would ask the following questions: 

  • Why in the world are we as taxpayers helping to fund and maintain private and parochial schools while public school districts are having difficulty maintaining their buildings, paying their staffs, running their buses?
  • Why do public schools have to float bond issues in order to have the funds to maintain the buildings owned by THE PUBLIC?
  • Why in the world are my tax dollars going to repair St. Jude's steeple when the vestry of my own church has turned to its own parishioners for a fund drive to repair its crumbling infrastructure?
  • Why in the world is Indiana funding religious education with no strings attached?

While these vouchers may or may not be saving money for the State of Indiana, what damage is being done to our local public school districts who are forced through funding cuts to enlarge class sizes, to cut services, and to operate on the fiscal margins all the while being held to a different set of standards and accountability than the voucher schools?

To say that I am outraged is an understatement!   

Are the legislators who are promoting vouchers as the magic bullet aware of how our tax dollars are being used?

Update, Feb. 22, 2014, 9:45 pm EST: This Indiana choice parent breaks down the implications of Father Jake's machinations, and has some big concerns. See here

What will it take to get our policy and law makers, both state and federal, to realize the damage that they are doing to our local communities by the voucher reform monster they have created? 

Phyllis Bush is a retired teacher who lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a founder of the grassroots group Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education 

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