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December 19, 2013

BOB ZALTSBERG: Public should expect to know how tax money is used for vouchers

Public should know how vouchers are used

The issue of school vouchers is complicated and brings out passions on both sides.

Those who advocate them talk about offering choice to people who may not otherwise have it. They say parents should be allowed to use state money to pay for their student children to go to another school they may choose, public or private.

Those opposed make various arguments, one of which is that there’s less accountability about how the taxpayers’ money is being spent if it’s not going to traditional, comprehensive public school systems.

Another says public funds should not be going to private, religion-based schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state, but Indiana courts shot that down by saying the money is going to the parents, not to religious schools.

It is The Herald-Times’ desire for accountability and transparency that led us to file a public records request about where voucher money is going — and then to seek an informal opinion of Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt when the state Department of Education said they were not available to the public. While he sided mostly with the DOE, we don’t regret pursuing these records and exposing the secrecy behind how some tax dollars are being spent.

We filed our initial request after Monroe County Community School Corp. officials were turned down when they asked for similar information. It seemed wrong to them, and to us, that state money can be turned over to individuals whom the state says must remain anonymous. So they, and we, asked for the names and addresses of each student enrolled in the MCCSC in 2011-2012 and then 2012-2013 who received a Choice Scholarship or voucher.

The DOE rejected the request, citing the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which says educational records are generally exempt from disclosure. It’s a well-meaning act that has become a cloak, which schools and educational organizations wrap around themselves when requests are made for student information they don’t want to release.

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