Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

What Indiana's New Voucher Rules Mean For Students & For The Program's Future

A picture of Pope Benedict XVI hangs in the hallway of St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis.

A picture of Pope Benedict XVI hangs in the hallway of St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis.

Half of Indiana’s one million students already met the income requirements for the state’s private school voucher program.

And that was before new eligibility rules took effect this week.

The new guidelines make it easier for certain students — including those with special needs — to receive a voucher, prompting voucher advocates to predict the program’s participation (currently at more than 9,100 students) will only grow.

“Indiana was the fastest-growing first-year voucher program ever, and now the fastest-growing second-year voucher program ever,” says Bob Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “Actually, I believe it will also become the fastest-growing third-year voucher program.”

THE NEW VOUCHER GUIDELINES…

- Increase the income limit for special needs students. Families with household incomes at 200 percent of the level needed to receive free or reduced price meals now qualify. (For everyone else, the income limit remains at 150 percent.)

- Loosen the public school attendance requirement. Students who live in the attendance areas of schools that have received F grades from the state or who already have siblings in the program now qualify.

- Increase the amount attached to an elementary school voucher: From the current $4,500 to $4,700 in the upcoming school year and $4,800 in 2014-15.

The old eligibility rules required students to attend public school for at least a year before receiving vouchers. The new rules preserve that requirement for most families, but would allow two groups — special needs students and siblings of current voucher recipients — to receive a scholarship without attending public school first.

It’s one reason Fort Wayne Journal Gazette editorial page editor Karen Francisco believes the new rules represent what she characterizes as a further erosion of the state’s support for public schools.

“It was the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent and I think now we’re seeing more and more of the animal in the room,” she tells StateImpact.

“These are pretty big expansions,” Francisco adds. “Students with special needs — I don’t think a lot of people understand how many students… are classified as [having] special needs.”

State education officials currently count more than 147,000 special education students in the state’s traditional public schools. Now the state is raising income eligibility guidelines for these students. Families can make twice as much as they would to qualify for free or reduced price lunch and still receive a voucher.

Too Far, Too Fast? Not Far Enough?

The state will also increase the maximum tuition amount each voucher covers — $4,700 per student next school year, up from $4,500. Enlow says this is a modest increase, but not enough to incentivize new private schools to open in Indiana.

While Enlow says legislators could have done more to increase the voucher amount, Francisco says lawmakers have gone too far:

Two years ago, that argument was made — and Sen. Luke Kenley [R-Noblesville] was one really seemed committed to that argument — that parents should have to try out public schools first before they make that transition. These are just little changes that are slowly being made to eliminate that requirement. I do think some legislators who believe that was important are beginning to see that every effort is being made to make sure that no family really has to try a public school first before they choose a private or parochial school.

Early in the session, Kenley and fellow Senate Education Committee member Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, publicly debated the so-called “public school attendance requirement,” as the Evansville Courier & Press‘ Eric Bradner recalls.

While Yoder wanted to allow siblings of current voucher recipients to receive private school tuition dollars without entering the public school system, Kenley said at the time this would break an agreement that was central to the original voucher bill: public schools get the first chance at educating students.

Were arguments like these a sign that voucher expansion is moving too fast? Enlow says no:

I’m going to get in trouble with this, but I think policymakers are often lagging indicators. They’re often behind the times of what needs to be done because they have other incentives at work instead of just what the high-quality options are. They have incentives to keep their seat, to make sure their constituents are happy. And often in these areas, particularly in rural and suburban areas, the largest employer is the public school system. So you’re absolutely hearing those legislators that are getting a lot of pressure… trying to say, ‘Slow down [on voucher expansion].’ I don’t think that’s what parents want. I think you’ll see through the growth of the program that’s not at all what they want.

Listen to edited versions of our long interviews with Enlow and Francisco above.

Comments

  • Jenny

    It really disturbs me to hear Bob Enlow talk about what parents want.
    I’m a parent. I want strong public schools, equitably funded, that are
    open to all students…schools with certified teachers, art, music,
    library, P.E., foreign languages. I want our public schools supported by
    our tax dollars. It bothers me that Indiana legislators are taking
    public education tax dollars and dispersing them to schools that admit through lottery and religious schools that can choose their students…while our public neighborhood schools are losing essential staff and programs. Schools that receive public money should all be operating under the same rules.

  • Jenny

    Also, on many online news sites, if I look up a schools-related article, I am bombarded with ads for online K-12 schools and Indiana school voucher information. Someone is paying for these ads. To me, that says that some of the money that is following the students to these schools is being used for advertising, not for education. Do I want my local public schools to devote a percentage of their state funding to advertising? No! What a waste that would be. But other schools that get state funding are advertising. What a mess.

    • Tonya

      you are way off do you have a clue how thoes schools work???? no because ur kids are not in them there were ads before the vouchers do you know theese school offer vouchers before the state Public schools do fundraisers once or twice a year for a new computer or new books for class rooms these K-12 school you are talking about they fundraise all year all summer non stop for needs thoes vouchers pay for most have higher test scores than public schools before you blowing your mouth why dont u really look into the matter because you know nothing and as for comments about speical needs childern my son went from public school 2 years of K with less than preschool ed. because it was easier to ignore him than help him after moving him he is holding his own in school that doesnt have the programs the public schools do The schools were around way before the voucher and they will be around weather it works or not i can walk into my son school they know me when i walk in the door they know witch child is mine they know my brother is my brother they know my neeces and that i pick them up you give me a public school that can look at you and know exactly what kids are your without looking and then we can talk

      • Jenny

        Hi Tonya, Thank you for responding. It sounds like we have had very different experiences. My daughter has attended public school the last three years and the teachers and principal all know her name and her interests– and they recognize me as her parent. She has been challenged and has received a good early elementary education. I talk to other parents whose children are in different schools across my town; they mainly say they love their children’s teachers and know the teachers care about their kids as individuals and as learners. I am sorry that you have not had a positive experience. I would like all public schools to have adequate resources so that all our children are surrounded by knowledgeable adults who can give them time and attention.

      • joe

        What school did you attend?

  • MBL

    Pff. As soon as these schools start actually having to service special-needs children that provision’s going to get dropped.

  • mrm27

    I live in a township (Washington) where the formerly awesome schools are turning now. This happened in Lawrence over the late-’90s to now. I look forward to using the vouchers so I can stay in my neighborhood and the home I love but send my kids to a school they feel safe at and are surrounded by students who want to learn and have parents who want their kids to learn. It is a shame so many people in the past or in other states have to move from their homes in search of ‘good schools’ because they dont want to pay taxes for bad schools and then pay private tuition on top of it.

  • Derrick

    My children are in a private school. This school has a 100% graduation rate, has grades 1-12, and the class sizes are cut in half. They offer core 40 and Honors diplomas (every student graduates with at least a core 40) and the tuition is affordable. Public schools waste their funding on unionized employees (wish i could work 10 months of the year five days a week and still make 80,000 a year, which is the average in the chicago area where the public schools are the worse). Anything run by the government turns to crap and the public education isn’t going to get better as long as the bureaucratic bull continues to go on. All these politicians that complain about the voucher system would not and do not put their kids in public schools because it isn’t good enough. My children have just as much right to superior schools as anyone else and instead of my tax dollars going to a public school that would only half butt educate my child and waste the money on stupid projects that don’t help our kids, I would rather have it go to the institution of my choice. Also these vouchers are less than what the federal government gives to public schools on a yearly basis because your child attends. This is the same argument as public funding for low income individuals for college tuitions ! The libs don’t whine about that.

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