Barely more than a year old, Indiana’s voucher program has grown in popularity, sent an extra $4 million to public schools, and yielded clear evidence of taxpayer savings.
In May the Indiana Department of Education paid $4 million extra to school districts and charter schools statewide because of the vouchers program. A special fund absorbed the state moneys that did not follow voucher students to their chosen private schools, and the funds were divided among all public districts by a predetermined formula.
These outlays demonstrate how school choice provides tangible taxpayer savings, said Leslie Hiner, state programs director for the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. She notes the direct payout makes Indiana vouchers unique.
“Other places will talk about savings, yet there’s no real physical representation of that,” she said. “Every citizen in the state will understand what it means when somebody gets a check.”
Based on family size and income, eligible students receive scholarships worth from 50 to 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil aid, with more money going to lower-income students. Individual scholarships for 2011-12 ranged from about $2,400 to $6,900, depending on a student’s resident district.
“In Indiana, we are not so much focused on funding school buildings in districts as we are [in providing] education for students,” said department spokeswoman Stephanie Sample, noting the voucher law requires this payout. “[Schools] don’t need money to educate students they don’t have in their buildings.”
The number of Indiana students receiving Choice Scholarships will increase for the 2012-13 school year, but department officials and advocates are reluctant to guess how much. Nearly 4,000 students successfully applied for a voucher in the program’s first year, which began directly after Gov. Mitch Daniels signed it into law in April 2011.
“Families had a little over two months to sign up,” Sample said. “They’ve got a lot more time this year.”
The number of applicants for 2012-13 by early June had already surpassed the first year’s total for the nation’s largest operating voucher program. Hiner says families have spread the news about the program by word of mouth.
“It’s not a quick process to get this information into the hands of all parents in the state,” she said. “Yet it’s the proper way it should proceed. [Parents] learn about it and study it, then they make a decision about whether it’s right for them.”
The program is capped at 7,500 students this fall and 15,000 in 2013-2014. It has no cap after that.
‘Huge Win’ for Community
One of the program’s larger magnets, the nondenominational Liberty Christian School in Anderson, took in nearly 120 Choice Scholarship students in 2011-2012, an enrollment boost of 20 percent. Ten of them left the school or were asked to leave. Superintendent Jeremy Cowin said the program has opened his K-12 school’s doors to more families with limited finances and to more students with special learning needs.
“It has really helped our school to look a little more like the community we serve,” said Cowin.
Liberty Christian has encountered a few minor frustrations from unexpected state requirements, he said, and the influx of students has introduced a need for staff to work harder to identify and address a range of learning gaps. But overall, Cowin believes the experience has been positive.
“For the Anderson community, it’s a huge win all around,” he said. “Families here have choices that they didn’t have before.”
Hiner says Indiana’s nascent choice program is spurring expansion of private education into new areas to meet student needs. Talk of new school creation has centered on models outside the traditionally successful networks of Catholic and Lutheran schools.
“It is encouraging that people are having these conversations,” said Hiner. “Much of that is very parent-driven.”
About 280 private schools were approved to receive Choice Scholarship students in 2011-12. To become eligible, a school must verify its state accreditation, agree to administer state tests to all students, and receive the same letter grade designations as public schools. A nonpublic school that earns two consecutive D or F grades will no longer be allowed to participate.
“If they’re getting state money, we want to hold them to the same high bar,” Sample said.
Liberty Christian students achieved 100 percent proficiency on the state’s early literacy IREAD test, but Cowin believes his school’s other assessment scores will “take a hit” in the short term because of several extra incoming students with academic struggles.
The first batch of performance data under Indiana’s new comprehensive accountability system for both public and voucher schools is scheduled to be released in August. Meanwhile, state leaders and supporters await a state supreme court hearing reviewing the voucher law. A district court in August 2011 upheld the program as constitutional.
Hiner says the Hoosier State’s successful voucher launch has put to rest the claims of choice opponents.
“This should give confidence to parents, legislators, and community leaders in other states that dire concerns of opponents that somehow everything would go wrong, it’s simply not true,” she said. “It just requires good people stepping up to do the right thing by their kids.”
Indiana Department of Education, Choice Scholarships, http://www.doe.in.gov/improvement/school-choice/choice-scholarships
Image by Peter Dedina.