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Indianapolis Star | Indiana’s Voucher Program Makes Huge Gains

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Scott Elliott

Indianapolis Star

Indiana’s private school voucher program is continuing to grow at an unprecedented rate — more than doubling in its second year.

The Indiana Department of Education announced Thursday that 9,324 students are now signed up for state-funded vouchers to attend private schools statewide. That’s strongly up from 3,919 students in the first year, making the program the fastest growing in history. The number of schools participating jumped to 289 from 241 last year.

The program is now redirecting more than $38 million in state aid from public schools to private schools, although the state officials say it saved $4.2 million that was redistributed among all public schools.

Indiana’s big numbers are due in large part to the design of the program, which is less limited than those in other states. Ohio is the only other state that has had a statewide program, but it restricts vouchers to communities with failing schools. Wisconsin limits them to just Milwaukee and Louisiana just this year began expanding beyond New Orleans.

Indiana’s program is open to any student meeting the income guidelines — anywhere in the state.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the biggest statewide teacher’s union, is aiming to shut the voucher program down. On Wednesday, the Indiana Supreme Court will hear arguments in an ISTA-supported lawsuit, which charges the program is an unconstitutional mingling of state money and religious institutions. The vast majority of schools accepting vouchers are religiously affiliated.

“Simply put, we are providing our neediest families options they’ve never had before, and they’re taking advantage of the opportunity to select schools that work best for their children,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said in a statement.

Other statistics from the program:

–Indianapolis Public Schools had the most students within its boundaries using vouchers of any district in the state at 1,262, up from 644 last year. The number of students who have actually transferred from IPS is 947, up from 365 last year. The rest already were attending private schools using a state program that also made them eligible for vouchers.

–Statewide, about 26 percent of voucher students already attended private schools. That’s up from 13 percent last year.

–Six Indianapolis townships joined IPS on the list of districts losing the most students to vouchers statewide — Warren, Pike, Perry and Lawrence townships all lost at least 189 students to the program and ranked in the top 10 statewide for voucher losses.

–About 66 percent of voucher students are from metropolitan areas, 18 percent live in suburban areas, and 16 percent come from rural areas and towns.

–Nearly 81 percent of voucher students are poor enough to qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program.

–Nearly half of voucher recipients are ethnic minorities, including 20 percent African-American, 19 percent Hispanic and 9 percent multiracial or Asian.

Eligibility for vouchers depends on family income and size. A family of four that earns less than $42,000 annually can receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education. Families of four making $42,000 to $62,000 can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

The voucher law capped the number of students allowed in the program at 7,500 last year and 15,000 this year. But there is no cap going forward unless the legislature decided to add one.

“The voucher program gives parents the right to choose what’s best for their kids and many of them are taking ownership and watching their children flourish in new settings,” said Robert Enlow, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said in a statement. The foundation is an Indianapolis-based organization that advocates for vouchers nationally.

Nationally, voucher programs usually start small. Indiana’s is growing unusually fast.

Ohio’s statewide program, which started in 2006, has more than 13,000 students enrolled. Milwaukee, the nation’s first major voucher program when it was launched in 1990, has more than 19,000.

If Indiana’s program were to keep growing at at roughly the pace it is on it could challenge those states for the nation’s biggest program as soon as next year.

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