In its third year, Indiana’s school voucher program has grown to be the third largest in the country, doubling in size to 20,000 students.
And it’s making a difference for Indiana children like Nicholas Ford, a seventh-grader who attends St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in Indianapolis with a voucher.
“Since he’s been there, he’s been doing wonderfully. He’s been challenged. There are more opportunities for him to participate in extracurricular activities. He’s in the school play. He’s in the band. Academically, he’s doing fantastic,” his mother, Karinya Chrisler, said.
Through the program, eligible families can use public money to attend private schools. The amount varies based on grade level and family income; for the 2012-2013 school year, the average voucher was $4,091.
The program is open to families earning up to 150 percent of the federal free and reduced price lunch threshold ($63,964 for family of four), or 200 percent ($85,286 for a family of four) for students with disabilities, according to the Friedman Foundation.
Parents Plus Schools
In 2013, lawmakers expanded the program to include siblings of voucher students and families living in failing school districts. Students who previously received a tax-credit scholarship from a scholarship granting organization are also eligible for vouchers, and families who rise out of the 150 percent cap can keep their vouchers until they reach 200 percent.
Parents and teachers have different roles in educating children, Chrisler noted, and the voucher has helped her play hers.
“Every parent needs to consider … what’s best for their child. I like the fact that I’m able to decide what’s best for him. I’m the one that knows him. I’m the one that knows his needs, and I’m fully capable of working with the teachers,” she said. “There are things I don’t know from a teacher’s perspective, but … I’m the one in the best position to make decisions for what school I think will be best for him.”
Finding a School
Chrisler learned about the school through a summer camp Ford attended there.
“The tuition I could not afford, so I talked to some of the people at St. Joan of Arc, some of the parents, and they talked about how much they liked it and how well their children were doing,” she said. “A friend of mine told me about the voucher program.”
Chrisler looked into the program, not thinking she would qualify, but she did.
St. Joan of Arc provides a better learning environment, she said, with fewer distractions, more respectful students, and teachers able to teach without constant interruption.
Racial diversity was another important factor in her decision. Ford’s public school population was entirely black, she said. St. Joan of Arc is more diverse.
“Our world isn’t 100 percent African-American. Our family isn’t 100 percent African-American. It just wasn’t indicative of the society we live in,” she said.
Ford has attended St. Joan of Arc since fifth grade.
When the voucher program was enacted in 2011, just short of 4,000 children participated. In the second year, more than 9,000 did. This year’s program ballooned to 20,047 participants.
A March state Supreme Court ruling in favor of the program, effectively ending legal complaints against it, and some advertising by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice contributed to the jump in numbers, said Robert Enlow, Friedman’s president.
The Indiana State Teachers Association opposes the voucher program, partly because vouchers are often used to fund religious schools, and because vouchers “drain much-needed resources from public schools,” said Mark Shoup, an ISTA spokesperson.
Shoup noted many voucher-eligible children still attend public schools.
“The vast majority of parents feel that traditional public schools do a good job educating children,” he said. “Parents should make the best decision for their children, but they should pay for that decision,” he said. “I, as a taxpayer, should not pay for children to attend private religious schools.”
The Friedman Foundation has sent mailings to eligible parents informing them of the program and directing them to a website.
Word of Mouth
“It works,” Enlow said. “People are responding, and now it’s feeding on itself. The reality is, for parents, typically word of mouth is the best thing anyway.”
The program has been “fantastic,” Chrisler said. Her biggest complaint is that too many parents don’t know about it. Even the paperwork was a simple matter of providing her tax return and signing a few forms, she said.
“The fact that the voucher allows me to send him to a school that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to send him to—I’m all for that, and I think other parents should have that choice.”
Chrisler is looking at a few different high schools for her son and hopes to put him on a solid path for the future, she said.
“In the society that we live in, if you don’t get a good education, you get left behind,” she said. “He wants to go to college. I want him to go to college, and he needs to have that foundation, and get as much as he can in primary school and high school, so that his road into college is a smoother transition.”
An earlier version of this article appeared on Watchdog.org. Reprinted with permission.
Image by Herald Post.