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Editorial columns

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State’s voucher bill devalues sacrifice

The Indiana school voucher program is unfair to thousands of Hoosier parents who are getting hosed.

The state government seems hell-bent on outsourcing public education to the private sector – and by private, I mean for-profit schools and, mostly, parochial schools.

I have not seen many others voice the position of tens of thousands of parents statewide who will not be eligible for vouchers. This includes parents who long ago made the decision and the sacrifice to send their children to private – usually parochial – schools.

Sacrifice is the correct word. The cost of sending my four children through the parochial school system has been more than $100,000 – and I’m not done yet. I stopped counting when I got to a hundred grand, because that makes the point well enough. But because my kids have been enrolled in religious schools all along, our family is not eligible for vouchers. We get a tax deduction, which last year was worth a net of $40. Total. We spent more than $12,000 in after-tax dollars (not deductible).

We never, ever regretted our choice. Fort Wayne is blessed with outstanding public schools. But many parents choose private schools simply for reasons of faith. The religious education children get in a Catholic or Lutheran school cannot be gotten in the public schools – nor should it be! Public schools cannot and should not promote any specific faith. So we were happy to make the sacrifice, while paying property taxes to support our excellent public school system as well. It was our money and our choice. We firmly believe in the quality of our public schools and are happy to support them while providing our children with the added component of religious training in their chosen faith.

Now the state is heading toward changing the economics of education, providing vouchers to families earning up to $120,000, with proposals that would make no requirement that they enroll in public schools, ever. With that income threshold, you can’t say that this program is to equal the playing field to allow poor religious children to attend faith-based schools. And there is no provision for people like us who made the choice of their own volition, for their own reasons, and happily paid the price. Discrimination? Yes. Unfair? Yes. Did we ever complain before? No. But things have changed.

And parents like me are not the only ones subject to discrimination. While vouchers may be made available to parents of children with special needs, as a practical matter many private schools are not able to serve these vulnerable children. Public schools are the only ones equipped to handle these children, and so special needs children, as a practical matter, will have nowhere to use their vouchers – no “choice.” Discrimination against special needs children is no small matter.

And when religious schools accept state money, the laws of economics also suggest that they will become wards of the state. He who pays the bills makes the rules. Thus, religious conflicts are inescapable because of the conflicting interests of the schools (promoting a specific faith) and the state.

The Indiana Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of using tax dollars to send children to religious schools. What’s taking them so long? Plain facts speak for themselves.

I don’t know why parents such as me – tens of thousands of us – have remained so silent for so long, but it’s time that our voice is part of this conversation. Without our financial sacrifices over many years, there would be no parochial schools for voucher-users to choose.

Steve Cebalt of Fort Wayne wrote this for The Journal Gazette.