Indiana saw a 47% increase in the number of students using state-funded vouchers to attend private schools this year, according to state education officials.
The total count of students using vouchers now reaches 29,146 elementary, middle and high school students, or about 3% of the state’s total public school student population. Last year the tally totaled 19,809.
According to state Democrats, the vouchers are merely a ploy by the Republicans to take money from the public school system.
“If we continue to see this kind of explosive growth in vouchers over the next few years, how is that going to help make our public schools whole again?” said Rep. Greg Porter, the ranking Democrat on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. “If more funding is provided for education, how much will have to be siphoned off to pay for vouchers?”
However, supporters of the program insist the vouchers offer parents a choice in the school that their children attend.
A plan to boost school funding during the 2015 legislative session was announced last month, but Democrats argue that public schools will not receive the additional funding if the number of students on vouchers continue to rise.
Funding is given to public schools based on the number of students enrolled. As a consequence, those schools who have students move to private schools receive less funding. Opponents of the voucher system would like to see additional funding provided to the public education system so that schools can offer educational programs that will compete with ones offered in private schools.
Money is transfered from public schools to fund the vouchers. Because private schools do not receive as much funding for each student as public schools do, the additional dollars are put back into the education system.
“Every dollar that goes toward vouchers is taken away from public schools that do not have the ability to pick and choose who they get to educate,” Porter said in a statement.
In its first year (2011), the state poured $15.5 million into a voucher system used by 3,900 students. In 2013, 20,000 students participated, and the cost to the state increased to $80 million. The first half of this school year has cost the state $57.9 million. The projected cost for the entire year is $115 million.
The program currently allows families whose income is 150% or less of that required for participation in the federal free or reduced price lunch program to participate. Initially, the program was only open to those who had previously been enrolled in public school.
Last year, additional ways to qualify were included by the General Assembly to include students with disabilities, those who live in a school district that currently holds an “F” on the state accountability system, or students who have a sibling using a voucher.