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.”
– 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.