Indiana’s school choice program has quintupled in size over the last three years, and new data say the state is providing an increasing number of vouchers to students who have never attended public schools.
The voucher program is the second largest in the country and was initially created to provide low income families a choice in education. Over the years, the program has changed by eliminating the number of vouchers the state can distribute, raising income eligibility levels, and offering non-public school students new ways to qualify.
State Senator Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) is disappointed with said how widespread the vouchers have become.
“There’s no question it will cost us more money,” he said. “I think it makes it even more important that we have a good parallel accountability system for the schools that take voucher students.”
Vouchers could cost the state $81 million this year, with a possible increase in cost next year if a proposal allowing preschool vouchers for low income families passes. Critics say the school choice program is serving more families with higher income brackets and that it takes funding from public schools.
Since private school tuition is higher than what vouchers cover, some higher-income families can cover the expense while low income families cannot. Educators are wondering if the state has lost sight of the original intent of the vouchers, which was to provide more options for low income students who do not perform well in public schools.
Advocates say the program gives families choices when it comes to meeting their children’s needs, and that the expansion of the voucher program means more children are attending high performing schools.
With an expansion approved by state lawmakers last year, the state recorded 5,225 new voucher students who wouldn’t have qualified under the old rules. Those students met new eligibility requirements: They were assigned to an F-rated public school, had a sibling already in the choice program or had a disability that required special education. The majority of those students had never attended an Indiana public school, which means they’re a new expense to the state. Because of vouchers, the state has started paying education costs for thousands of students it didn’t need to cover before.
David Dresslar, executive director of the University Of Indianapolis Center Of Excellence in Leadership of Learning, says the state is on a “slippery slope.” The plan was for parents to give public schools a chance, but it has “eroded to the point where private schools are an alternative to public schools.” His fear is that the vouchers will lead to public and private schools tapping into state dollars.
Advocate Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, countered by saying kids need funding for quality, and that the state needs to focus on the child’s needs, not who does or doesn’t get the money. The cost for a student to receive a voucher is less than the cost of funding a child in public school. The state spent $36 million in vouchers last year, but saved $4.9 million, and the savings goes to the public schools.