Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 19, 2013

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

Public should know how vouchers are used

Kokomo Tribune

---- — 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.

We broadened our request to ask for the names of parents of students from the MCCSC who received an approval letter from the DOE stating their child was eligible for Choice Scholarships or vouchers from the years listed above. Again, we were turned down, the DOE said, because identifying the parents would identify the children. Britt concurred. The logic is understandable.

But it’s still troubling to think these state funds are flowing to places known only to state officials. How can school systems, like MCCSC, be sure of where the money being diverted from them is going? How can they reach out to parents of former students to ask them what they could have done to better serve the students who took their vouchers to another school?

Public Access Counselor Britt’s analysis to us offered that FERPA allows a lot of discretion to schools. There’s a “directory information” exception, which allows the school to release lists of students such as basketball rosters, the casts of plays — and “awards received.” Choice Scholarships and vouchers would seem to fall under that category, meaning the names and addresses could be available if schools wanted to share them.

We had a third part of our request as well that the DOE refused: the amount of scholarship award each MCCSC student received. Britt concluded that information should be shared even though the other records were withheld. The department has done so.

Though we didn’t get all the information we wanted to share about about how taxpayers’ money is being spent, we felt it was important to ask. Neither the information they hold nor the money they spend belongs to government officials. It all belongs to the public.

The first point Britt made in his analysis of our inquiry was that Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act states that “(p)roviding persons with information is an essential function of representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty is to provide the information.” And so we ask.

Bob Zaltsberg is editor of The Herald-Times in Bloomington. Contact him at rzaltsberg@heraldt.com.