November 20, 2023

Keri Miksza: It’s time for private schools to open the books

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Keri Miksza is chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. In this op-ed for the Indiana Capital Chronicle, she explains why it’s well past time for the state’s voucher-accepting school to show taxpayers where their money is going. 

Maybe you saw the yard signs this summer? Across the state, a private organization — the Institute for Quality Education — put money toward promoting the dollar amount a child can receive from the state of Indiana to help pay for private school.

It’s around $6,000 this school year, per the yard signs. In 2023-24, almost all Hoosier children qualify for a private school voucher if they can find a private school that will accept them.

A program that was founded on the premise of providing opportunities for low-income and minority families has grown significantly since it was first challenged in court in 2012, one year after state legislators passed legislation establishing it. Yet while the program has expanded to include almost all families, the same problems persist: little accountability for taxpayers and few protections for families.

As the state sends millions more tax dollars to private schools this year — an estimated $500 million, more than 35 times the initial cost to taxpayers in the 2011-12 school year — taxpayers still have no idea how these voucher dollars are being used by the schools that receive them. Is the money going into the classroom to help students? Unsure. Is the school financially distressed? Who knows.

There are no state-required audits as there are for public schools. There are no public school board meetings in which to ask questions.

Families’ rights and protections are fewer in private schools compared to public schools. Being able to pay tuition doesn’t mean your child will be allowed to enroll, or once enrolled, allowed to stay, even in a school affiliated with your own church. Every one of the 320 (and growing…the state money is too good to pass up) private schools receiving state tax dollars via vouchers can turn away or tell a child to leave at any time, for most any reason.

Contracts and more

In addition, vouchers require parents to sign contracts with the school. The terms of those contracts are one-sided. If you pull your child out, or if the school pushes your child out, you can still be on the hook to pay for the rest of the month, semester or year. Schools can even garnish families’ wages. There are collection cases filed for private school tuition in Indiana, often targeting hourly workers in low-paying jobs. This is the side of “school choice” that isn’t positive and uplifting, and it isn’t told.

Why doesn’t Indiana clearly convey the rights forfeited — for instance, in a letter mailed home — when parents choose to accept a voucher to leave the public school system for a privately managed school?

Many schools are receiving hefty amounts of state support. For instance, Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis received $3.3 million in 2022-23 alone; Heritage Christian school received $3.7 million. Concordia Lutheran in Allen County received $2.6 million, while Faith Christian in Tippecanoe County received $3.1 million.

This is a lot of money, and when it leaves the public school system it enters a black box.

Like public schools, private schools are receiving state funds, and Indiana’s taxpayers deserve to know how that money is spent. Like public schools, voucher-receiving private schools should be audited by the State Board of Accounts.

Legislators should take this common-sense step. Most private schools accepting vouchers are faith-based, but Indiana’s attitude toward their use of state dollars shouldn’t be.

It’s past time for schools receiving vouchers to open their books.

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