Earlier this month, some private and religious schools participating in Indiana’s voucher program revealed that they had erroneously received $3.9 million thanks to miscalculations. That money has since been returned.
The Indianapolis Star reported that the overage was revealed only because some of the participating schools did an audit of their tuition and financial aid programs. Of the 300 plus private schools that get voucher money, 80 found errors due to mistakes that the schools described as unintentional.
Most of the schools that returned money are Catholic, the Star said, and they made mistakes like failing to apply discounts for parishioners, not accounting for families with multiple kids or not recognizing discounts for children of church employees.
It’s great that a portion of the schools were honest enough to return taxpayer money and we hope that all of the mistakes truly were made by accident. We also hope that the more than 220 schools that did not perform audits did not receive any extra money, though that seems highly unlikely. But there is an obvious problem here – self-audits are the only check on Indiana’s voucher program at this time. The Hoosier State has an enormous voucher program ($81 million spent in 2013 on an estimated 30,000 students), and Gov. Mike Pence wants to see it grow by lifting the $4,800 cap on “scholarships” for elementary school students.
But expanding the program is a scary thought because it isn’t being properly monitored even at its current size. The Indiana Department of Education (IDE) has absolutely no obligation to audit voucher spending. Daniel Altman, an agency spokesman, told the Star that participating schools are supposed to promise to abide by certain accounting rules. That’s not exactly ironclad, and it remains unclear whether or not schools that break this promise can receive any sort of punishment. It’s also unknown what happens to voucher schools that never make the promise in the first place.
Voucher advocates have claimed that Indiana’s voucher program is saving the state money because it lowers the amount the state spends per student at public schools. That isn’t the whole story. In 2013, IDE revealed that the voucher program actually cost the state an extra $16 million because the state was spending money on children who had not previously attended public schools.
And what does Indiana have to show for its voucher investment? Besides spending almost $4 million more than it should have, it’s also funding schools that discriminate against employees on the basis of gender.
It’s simply naïve to expect all 300 schools to self-police Indiana’s voucher expenditures. The program should not exist to begin with because vouchers just don’t work. But as long as the program exists, there must be strict standards of both academic and financial accountability. Taxpayer dollars should never be used for religious instruction, and all states have an obligation to ensure that this does not happen. Lawmakers also have a responsibility to make sure private schools are not receiving even one dollar more than they are owed. If they can’t – or won’t – fulfill these obligations, then a significant change is needed.