Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 22, 2013

District frustrated by denial of voucher data

State education department cites privacy laws to deny information request.

Kokomo Tribune

---- — BLOOMINGTON (AP) — Monroe County school officials say they’re frustrated that the Indiana Department of Education won’t release information to show which students have received vouchers to attend private schools.

The Monroe County Community School Corp. requested the information to help it track students and determine why its enrollment was falling. But the DOE denied the request, citing federal education privacy laws, The Herald-Times reported.

School officials question the state’s denial based on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, saying they’re an educational agency and would be required to keep the information confidential.

Board member Sue Wanzer said the request for names, addresses and amounts of vouchers awarded is about accountability.

“The bottom line is this is public money, and for me whenever there’s public money, there’s a responsibility to be accountable,” she said. “Now public money is going to private schools, yet we’re being denied the access to the names of the people who are actually getting that public money.”

The DOE did provide the numbers of students who received vouchers and the total scholarship amounts. That data showed that 60 students in the district received $221,088 in vouchers for the 2012-13 school year and that 11 students received $44,079 in vouchers in 2011-2012.

The vouchers, known as School of Choice scholarships, are awarded based on household income. Vouchers can amount to up to 90 percent of the per-pupil funding the district public school corporation would receive from the state.

Wanzer questioned whether the DOE has other reasons behind its refusal to release specifics about voucher students.

“I think the state doesn’t want to reveal it because they don’t want to reveal that a lot of the people getting this money aren’t necessarily the people that the vouchers were intended for,” she said. “The state has made a good case that we’re going to make these vouchers available to poor people who can’t afford private education, and I think what they’re afraid people will find is that a lot of this money is going to middle class or upper middle class people who really could perhaps manage this tuition, but instead are opting to take the state money for a private education.”

DOE spokesman Daniel Altman said the voucher program verifies income eligibility at the time of application and audits schools to make sure they’re following department policies for determining whether students are eligible.

Tim Thrasher, director of business operations for the Monroe County district, said having more specific information about voucher recipients “gives us more information about how we’re losing students other than just the lump sum dollars.”

“We are required to account for every student, and we can’t account for them going to other schools without knowing who they are,” he said.