Ensuring that Indiana’s New Voucher Program Lives up to Budgetary Expectations

A new voucher program in Indiana looks likely to be signed by Gov. Daniels soon, but without a slight modification it may not have the benign budgetary impact that is expected.

As written, the program could have a significant negative impact on state finances if families claim both the vouchers and funds from the state’s existing education tax credits.

There is nothing that precludes children who receive a voucher from also topping off that amount with private funds from the existing education tax credit program. That means a voucher student could accept, for example, $4,500 in government funds and then apply for a tax credit scholarship that reduces state revenue by, say, $2,000. The voucher student would cost the state $6,500, not the $4,500 that would be counted on the books. If state funding is 100 percent sensitive to enrollment, the state would save $5,000 on that student switching, and the net impact on state finances would be a $1,500 loss. In other words, the program could have a negative net impact on state finances due to double-dipping.

From a fiscal standpoint, the state would show an apparent “savings” based on the $4,500 voucher, but this would fail to take into account the reduced revenue due to the credit. And the law requires these on-paper-only savings to be passed out to public schools districts. The result? The state government could be out $7,000 on the student in this example, not the $4,500 it paid out in a voucher. The net impact wouldn’t be neutral, it would be a $2,000 loss.

This scenario looks only at how the vouchers might impact state finances. At the local level, the program is likely to have a strongly positive impact on the resources available for each student. But a school choice program’s impact on state finances – ensuring financial transparency, certainty, and a neutral or positive impact – is a critical concern in its own right.

Critics of expanding educational freedom always claim, incorrectly, that school choice programs are a drain on public resources. But the double-dipping that is allowed under this program could inadvertently prove them right – it would also make Indiana’s existing education tax credit program a mere appendage to the new government voucher system. In short, it’s an unforced error, and worth fixing.