Overpayments not applied to local schools

A recent study shows some private schools participating in the state’s voucher program were overpaid nearly $4 million since its inception in 2011.

The three Jackson County schools accepting vouchers through the Indiana Department of Education’s Choice Scholarship Program are happy to report they are not among that group.

Unintentional errors in calculating school voucher tuition costs are to blame for 80 of the more than 300 private schools accepting vouchers being overpaid $3.9 million, according to an analysis by the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. Those schools have returned that money to the state.

The vouchers allow a student to take state money — normally distributed only to public schools on a per-pupil basis — to a private school of his or her choice. In applying for a voucher, parents are required to fill out a form verifying income and household size.

Seymour Christian Academy Principal Aaron Arrowood said the only time his school returned money to the state was in the 2013-14 school year, when two students who received vouchers didn’t stay a whole semester.

“We receive funds from the state for the whole semester,” Arrowood said. “For those students who do not stay for the entire semester, we return the funds for the days that the student was not enrolled here.”

Seymour Christian Academy is in its second year of accepting vouchers, going from about 30 students in 2013-14 to nearly 60 this school year.

Neither Trinity Lutheran High School nor St. Ambrose Catholic School, both in Seymour, had to return money to the state while administering the voucher program.

Trinity began accepting vouchers in the 2013-14 school year. Eight students used vouchers then, and that grew to 59 this school year.

St. Ambrose has been involved in the program since its inception. It went from six students using vouchers in 2011-12 to 55 in 2014-15.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Daniel Altman told The Associated Press the agency is not required to audit the voucher program, but emergency rules drafted in 2013 required schools to provide assurances they will follow certain guidelines.

About $3.7 million of the money overpaid went to private Catholic schools, INPEA executive director John Elcesser told The AP. He said some schools may have misunderstood the program’s complicated guidelines.

When Indiana passed its school voucher law in 2011, 3,919 students received vouchers for the 2011-12 school year.

This school year, nearly 30,000 Indiana students are estimated to be using vouchers. That was a 47 percent jump from the previous school year. In 2013-14, the state paid out about $81 million for vouchers.

Legislation passed in 2013 made siblings of current participants eligible for vouchers, tweaking a rule that required students to first attend a public school to receive state money for a private school.

Also, Lutheran and Catholic schools in Indiana have specific scholarship granting organizations that grant scholarships to students. For instance, Trinity received a large number of students from the Lutheran grade schools this year who received a scholarship during their eighth-grade year.

Now that the number of students using vouchers is close to 30,000, that’s pushing Indiana’s program to the largest in the nation and fastest-growing in U.S. history.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.