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Editorial columns

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Church plan shows where voucher funds will be going

The voucher program in Indiana was defended as a method that would allow poor Hoosier children to escape from failing schools. Of course, many of us knew that was nothing more than a slogan. There never was a voucher requirement that to become eligible, the student must leave a poor-performing school or apply to a higher-performing school (putting aside the problem of defining either). In addition, the income requirements extended well into middle class. Finally, the program was expanded to those who never attended public schools, thus eliminating once and for all the “help those poor kids escape” illusion.

I won’t distinguish between a voucher and a tax-credit scholarship because both direct public dollars from the common school fund to religious education and because the tax-funded scholarship program creates voucher eligibility in subsequent years. It is disappointing that so very few taxpayers and “tax watchdogs” understand how the scholarships work. A taxpayer creates a scholarship of at least $1,000 for her student at a particular school and receives a tax credit (50 percent) which is taken from the common school fund. The private school can pay the balance of the tuition because the scholarship is a gateway to a voucher in subsequent years.

The vast majority of voucher money is now spent by those desirous of a religious education; a facet of the educational experience with which public schools cannot compete. The recent release of the voucher program report details the number of students receiving taxpayer assistance and the names of the various Catholic, Lutheran, Islamic and non-denominational schools they attend. There are about 2,800 voucher students within the Fort Wayne Community Schools boundaries. FWCS estimates it lost about 500 students to vouchers; therefore, more than 80 percent of the recipients were already parochial school students.

More alarming, the common school fund has not grown to accommodate the policy decision to fund both public and private schools. The result is fewer dollars for all public schools as the common school fund is diverted to … church steeples!

Yes, you read that correctly.

In a recent address to parish members, the Rev. Jake Runyon, pastor of St. Jude parish, spoke at length on the importance of parishioners applying for the tax-funded Choice scholarships. His remarks were recorded. (Find the recording at Runyon made it clear that increasing the number of voucher students will “ease the financial burden on the parish.” He then went on to explain to parishioners that expanding the tax-supported scholarships will make it less difficult “for me to do some certain thing on the church side of things like fix the steeple, paint the roof and maybe grow the ministries we can do, you know, on the church side of things.”

I love my Catholic faith and I am proud of my Catholic education, paid for by my dad. I even introduced a resolution to the FWCS Board a few years back congratulating our Catholic colleagues for Catholic Schools week. My grandfather, Thomas Kelly, stood in for Bishop Noll and broke the ground for Central Catholic High School (with FWCS Superintendent Merle J. Abbett turning dirt beside him).

I am, nonetheless, dismayed and disappointed at this acknowledgment that the common school fund has become part of a shell game to support religious activities. It is my hope that community leaders will speak out forcefully to legislators and bring this sorry chapter of constitutional contempt to an end. I fully understand the consequences of speaking out on this issue, but I have no desire to serve on the school board and witness its demise as the result of policies that I believe would shock the consciences of the delegates to our constitutional conventions of 1816 and 1850.

Mark GiaQuinta is an attorney and president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.