Voucher programs are growing at a fast pace in Indiana, and advocates believe that sustained growth could even boost the measure of schools that resonates loudest for politicians and parents: student test scores.
According to the Indiana Department of Education's data, voucher enrollment has more than doubled in 2013 compared to last year. As of September 1st, 20,047 students signed up to use the three-year-old voucher program — more than double last year's total of 9,324, the data shows. If enrollment growth continues at its current rate, Indiana will be No. 1 in the nation for vouchers next year, according to Scott Elliott of The Indianapolis Star.
Private school advocates said the recent ISTEP scores for Marion County show that they offer a route to better schools for poor and middle-income families that use the program.
Two others states – Wisconsin and Ohio – offer similar statewide programs. Wisconsin has the largest program, and the 20-year-old program in Milwaukee has more than 24,000 kids enrolled. Ohio's program was started in 2006 and has boasts around 16,000 students.
"The growth in Indiana's voucher program is amazing, but not totally unexpected given the quality of the non-public schools in and around Marion County," said Robert Enlow, CEO of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation, which advocates for vouchers nationally.
Enlow and other proponents argue that the stronger performance of private schools in Indianapolis is a reason to support the program, although the Indiana Department of Education still hasn't conducted a study examining the performance of students who have transferred using vouchers.
According to recently released ISTEP test scores, top performing elementary schools are most likely to be private schools or located in outlying townships in Marion County.
Only a third of 230 test schools in Marion County scored above the state average this year, regardless of school type. But those that did included 62% of the county's private schools and 34% of traditional public schools located outside of the center city. Very few of the county's charter schools (21%) or Indianapolis Public Schools (14%) were above the state average of 72.7% passing both math and English on ISTEP, according to recently released results.
The data is not yet available on how many students in Marion County received vouchers to attend private schools this year, but last year the county accounted for 30% of all Indiana students receiving vouchers.
"Private schools are doing a good job with kids, for those in the voucher program and all kids," Enlow said. "Even the lower rated private schools are above IPS."
According to David Dresslar, executive director of the Center on Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, the comparative performance of Marion County schools is driven by poverty.
"We've known for a long time that academic tests have a high correlation to socioeconomic levels for students," he said. "Unfortunately, poor students tend to lag behind, and there are lots of societal reasons for that."