Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Indiana's Private Schools May See A Shortage Of Space For Voucher Students

Elle Moxley/StateImpact Indiana

Students sing and play music games during choir class at St. Charles Catholic School in Bloomington.

The Indiana Department of Education has issued more than 8,000 vouchers for students to attend private schools at the state’s expense. That’s twice as many as the IDOE issued last year, but only about half of the number available.

About 300 Indiana private schools accept the vouchers, and some have seen tremendous enrollment growth as a result of the state’s choice scholarships. But large gains may not be the norm. Many of the state’s private schools will only be able to accommodate a handful of voucher students before they reach capacity.

Why Some Indiana Parents Are Picking Private School

Take a tour of St. Charles Catholic School in Bloomington, and Principal Alec Mayer will tell you the students sell the school to prospective families.

“It’s safe,” says Mayer as he pokes his head into a quiet second grade classroom. “We have discipline and structure. We have good curriculum.”

Elle Moxley/StateImpact Indiana

Choir teacher Kathy Gorr leads students at St. Charles Catholic School in Bloomington in a song.

Mayer loves showing off St. Charles. His two favorite rooms are music and art. Students are polite as they greet Mayer in the hall on their way to choir practice. As soon as the fifth graders are seated, their teacher leads them in a hymn.

It’s the first year students have attended St. Charles with the help of choice scholarships from the state. Mayer says enrollment is up, but not by much.

“In a school with 458 students, fifteen voucher students isn’t that much of an impact at all,” says Mayer.

St. Charles serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Mayer says the school is about 85 percent Catholic. Almost all of the voucher students the school has accepted are also Catholic. That’s because tuition is about $4,000 for Catholics and $6,000 for non-Catholics. So students who get vouchers but aren’t Catholic end up paying about $1,500 a year.

How One St. Charles Family Qualified For State Vouchers

“It’s not a battle for me. The whole purpose behind it is so parents can have a choice. I’m not a salesman. I’m a school principal.”
—Alec Mayer, St. Charles principal

All families get a discount for enrolling multiple students. Still, the cost can add up. Erin Lemrow teaches French at St. Charles. About a year ago she made the difficult decision to pull her five kids out of the school they’d always attended because the family couldn’t afford the tuition.

“Tuition got a bit costly for us. We’re a large family, a large Catholic family, so we went ahead and tried out public school,” says Lemrow.

But Lemrow says her kids had trouble adjusting to public school. Their classes were bigger, their friends were still at St. Charles. The school wasn’t working, so she started looking at other options.

That’s when Lemrow discovered that because she had sent her kids to public school for a year, they suddenly qualified for the voucher program.

“When we found out that part of being eligible for a voucher program meant having come from a public school, we just couldn’t believe it,” says Lemrow. “We were overwhelmed with happiness, just really happy we could come back to St. Charles as a family and not just have me working here alone.”

There was space in every grade for Lemrow’s kids at St. Charles. But Principal Mayer says that might not always be the case.

The school can only accept 50 students per grade, and some classes are nearly full. Mayer doubts he’ll have space available as the current kindergarten class ages through the school. He says the school doesn’t have plans to expand.

“Even if I have 25 extra third graders who wanted to come in and I was already at capacity of 50, we wouldn’t take them,” says Mayer. “We just don’t do that.”

Mayer refers back to the school’s art and music curriculum, high test scores and small class sizes. He says St. Charles doesn’t actively recruit voucher students.

Why Indiana May Have A Capacity Problem In The Future

But some say capacity at the state’s existing private schools will become a big problem in Indiana. Robert Enlow is president of the Friedman Foundation, a national school choice advocacy group based in Indianapolis. He says most of Indiana’s private schools will soon reach capacity, but the current maximum voucher is too low to attract new schools to the state.

Elle Moxley/StateImpact Indiana

Students at St. Charles Catholic School in Bloomington prepare for a lesson on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012.

“There were at least three private school groups that offer high quality options for families in other states that wanted to come in, but they couldn’t come in at $4,500,” says Enlow.

Enlow says if the state offered more like $6,000 per voucher, then it could encourage more private schools to open in Indiana. He says about 85 percent of the families who took advantage of the program last year qualified for free or reduced lunch. That means they’re likely priced out of schools where tuition is more than the cost of a voucher.

“We need to make sure we have enough dollars eligible particularly for low income families to access all the choices that are available,” says Enlow. “We don’t want to advantage one choice over another a choice frankly and we’re doing that a little bit by having a $4,500 cap.”

Still, Indiana’s program is considered by many to be the most expansive in the country — beginning next year there’s no limit to the number of vouchers the state can issue.


  • inteach

    St. Charles Catholic School and Prep Academy for White Children…

    Brought to you by the taxpayers of Indiana.

    • parterre

      Parents of any color can now enroll their kids in any school. This does look like a mainly white school, but it would be a lot easier for a black parent to get their kid in there than in a lily-white subdivision where they do not reside.

  • Karynb9

    If they’re taking public money, there should be no such thing as “full.” When do the public schools in the fast-growing suburbs get to be “full”?!? I’m sure Carmel and HSE and Avon would love to cap class sizes at reasonable levels and not have to build new schools when they decide they’re “full.” Yet another reason why the private-to-public comparisons are ridiculous.

    • parterre

      Ha ha, the fast-growing suburban schools get to be “full” when kids from other school neighborhoods try to enroll. (We live in East Allen County Schools). All the desirable schools are “full”, yet we supposedly can enroll in any school in our district. In fact, no one even returns phone calls! It’s fabulous service from our tax dollars.

  • Arthur Sido

    “The Indiana Department of Education has issued more than 8,000 vouchers for students to attend private schools at the state’s expense.”

    State expense? Where exactly do you think that money comes from? It doesn’t come from a magic pot of money that replenishes itself. It comes from the same parents that use the vouchers. The way most education funding works is akin to making you pay $500/month car payments on a jalopy that barely runs and then having to pay again for another car that actually functions. If I am forced to fund the education system shouldn’t I have some say over where those funds are used in the education of my children?

  • Paul

    What say does the taxpayer have who has no children in school, yet does not everyoone pay a school tax?? I paid for my childrens private education and also paid my fair share of school tax…my choice, but I did not force anyone else to pay for my childrens religous educaton.

  • Fedup

    I would like to know why I have to pay for my childrens private education, my taxes that fund public schools and now because I have never placed my children in a public school my children are not eligible for a voucher. Who exactly is getting the money allowed for my five chidren. Is this fair? I disagree. My children should not be discriminated against because we have chose to sacrifice other things for a private education? So let me get this straight, I pay taxes for public schools that my children do not use? and now vouchers for everyone else to use for my private schools.? Yes, that absolutely sounds fair Governor. Its a choice for everyone but the ones who have paid their whole life.?

    • kystokes

      Thanks for your comment, Fedup.

      Your tax dollars have always gone to public schools, even though your children don’t attend them — that was true before and after the voucher program began. It’s rolled into the decision to opt children out of public schooling — you can’t opt out of paying taxes that benefit public schools. (Aren’t there even tax credits for families with children enrolled in private schools? Could be wrong on that score…)
      Anyway, the voucher program is targeted specifically at those who can’t pay — it’s branded as for low-income families. If you can pay private school tuition on your own, then, theoretically, you’re not in the core constituency of this program… Although, all of this said, it’s clear those who can pay for private education are benefiting from the money:

      I know there was a push in the General Assembly to drop the requirement that a student be enrolled in public schools for one year prior to receiving a voucher. That bill died in the General Assembly.

      • parterre

        It should just be by family income, without the requirement for 1 year of public school. My oldest used to go to public school, and now all 3 of mine are in parochial. I know some families will pull them out for a year, so they can qualify for future years, but I don’t want to disrupt their schooling that much. The benefit is valuable for elementary school, but the big pay-off will be at the high school level, where tuition is $6000 per kid.

  • Fedup

    Saint Charles has a Choir, but it is not inclusive. From when it starts to about 6th grade, the songs are at least two octaves about middle C, and if any students, no matter the gender, no matter how early they mature, they have to sing it or they get a bad grade.

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