School Choice

As vouchers grow, more suburban students are attending private schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis' St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.

A key rationale for Indiana’s fast-growing private school voucher program when it launched in 2011 was that children in low-scoring, high-poverty schools need more options, but data for the program shows it is increasingly popular in wealthy, high-scoring school districts.

Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern — two of the state’s wealthiest districts — both saw strong jumps in the number of children who live in those communities using publicly-funded vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Data released by the Indiana Department of Education this week showed the number of students using vouchers jumped nearly 50 percent statewide during the last year, narrowly falling behind Wisconsin for having the largest program in the nation.

But in Carmel, the number more than doubled to 84 this year from 40 last year. Even more kids in Hamilton Southeastern are using vouchers this year: 214, a 79 percent jump up from 119 last year.

Among the beneficiaries among Hamilton County private schools are Guerin Catholic High School, which has 43 students using vouchers, and a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Cicreo, Indiana Academy, with 61 students. Both schools saw big gains over last year, when Guerin only enrolled 16 students using voucher and Indiana Academy had 18.

To be sure, most children using vouchers still live in the state’s largest, poorest cities with some of the most troubled public schools. Fort Wayne, the second largest Indiana school district, had the most vouchers users, with more than 4,000 in 2014-15, up nearly 45 percent from this past year.

Indianapolis Public Schools, Indiana’s largest school district, was next on the list with about 3,000 children using vouchers, up about 13 percent from last year. The other biggest districts for vouchers are also cities South Bend, Anderson Community Schools and Gary Community Schools.

But some surprising districts are seeing more widespread voucher use. Seymour, a small city in rural Southern Indiana, has 131 children using vouchers this year, up nearly 200 percent.

Indiana’s voucher program is the nation’s second largest and fastest growing, driven by less restrictions on who can obtain one. Unlike other states with large voucher programs, Indiana does not limit them to families only living near low-rated schools or who have special needs, like disabled students. And the income limits for Indiana are more generous than other states, allowing middle class families to participate.

A family of four making less than $43,500 qualifies to spend up to 90 percent of the per student state aid amount their school districts receive on tuition. Families of four making more than that amount, but less than $65,250, can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount. Families can continue to receive vouchers once they are in the program even if their incomes grow beyond those limits.

Per student state aid varies by district. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, is about $8,000 per student. A maximum of $4,700 can be spent on private school tuition for elementary schools. There is no such cap for high schools.

The prime beneficiary of the voucher program has been Indiana’s Catholic schools, but other private and religious schools have seen voucher use expand.  In all nearly 315 private schools accept vouchers in Indiana.

The schools with the highest enrollments of students using vouchers in the state are Bishop Dwenger High School and Saint Charles Borromeo School, both in Allen County. They each enrolled about 350 students using vouchers.

In Marion County, 60 schools accept vouchers. The schools with the highest voucher enrollments in Marion County are Cardinal Ritter, a Catholic High School, and MTI School of Knowledge, with a focus on Islamic studies, both enrolling about 250 voucher students.

Search enrollment data from the Indiana Department of Education for a selected number of districts below.

Politics & Policy

Indiana ranked no. 1 for charter-friendly environment by national advocacy group

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A national group that pushes for charter schools to operate freely says Indiana is doing almost everything right.

But the group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dinged Indy’s lack of regulation for online charter schools in its newest report ranking states on charter school regulation. A recent Chalkbeat series documented the persistently low test scores at the schools — which educate more than 11,442 students.

The nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pushes for greater funding and flexibility for charter schools across the nation.

Its report highlights Indiana because the state does not have cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Multiple organizations also have the authority to authorize schools (including private universities and state organizations). And Indiana charter schools have significant autonomy from the strictures of district unions and many of the state regulations that cover traditional districts. But they can be closed for persistently low test scores.

Indiana has a large ecosystem of charter schools that serve more than 43,000 students — exceeding any district in the state. It’s one piece of a statewide embrace of school choice that features many of the programs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump support — including one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, open enrollment across district boundaries, and district-run choice programs.

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.