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

Indianapolis school board members make an unusual school visit — halfway around the world

PHOTO: Courtsey: Kelly Bentley
Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.

When Indianapolis Public Schools board members visit schools, it’s usually a short trip across town. But the latest site visit took them a little farther afield — about 8,500 miles.

IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan and member Kelly Bentley traveled to Thailand earlier this month to visit a study abroad program that could soon be available to students in the district.

Thrival Academy, which is designed to give low-income high school students the chance to study and travel internationally, aims to launch as an IPS innovation school in 2018. If the Indianapolis school gets board approval, it will be the second Thrival site. This year, the group is piloting the program in partnership with Oakland Unified School District in California.

Indianapolis has a rapidly growing selection of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. With its study-abroad focused program, Thrival is one of the most unusual ideas put forward.

It’s so unusual that Bentley and Sullivan wanted to see the program in practice.

During a four-day visit, they stayed at the camp where Oakland students lived, visited sites where the teens did home stays, and learned about the academics that are offered during the three months that high schoolers in the program spend in South Asia. They also had the chance to talk with students from Oakland about their experience.

“These were kids that, some of them had never, ever been away from home,” Bentley said. “I think it is a life-changing experience for these kids.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.

The trip was paid for by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that partners with IPS to support innovation schools and that funds a fellowship that Thrival’s founder, Emma Hiza, won to start the school.

In addition to the board members, the Mind Trust sent the IPS chief of operations, and Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, had previously gone to scout the program. Other board members were also invited to go, but declined because the trip was on short notice, said Sullivan.

Almost as soon as Bentley and Sullivan shared photos and tidbits from the trip on Facebook, critics of the Mind Trust’s influence in Indianapolis schools began raising questions about the Thailand trip.

Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust said the group wanted board members to have a chance to see the program because it is so unusual — not in an effort to sway their votes.

“Because we are sending students halfway across the world,” he said, “we thought it would’ve been irresponsible for them not to go see it.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.

The camp did not charge Bentley and Sullivan for their stay, Hiza said, so the group’s main costs were their plane tickets.

But accepting an international trip to see a school they will eventually vote on could make it appear that the board members are not impartial, said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“I would just have advised them not to do it,” she said. “I’m not questioning anybody’s integrity. I’m not questioning anybody’s motivation. … It’s the perception.”

For their part, Bentley and Sullivan say they won’t make final decisions on whether to support the school until the details of the Indianapolis program are ironed out. But they now have a greater understanding of Thrival’s model.

The trip gave them insight into the program that it would’ve been hard to get without seeing it in practice, said Sullivan, such as how Thrival integrates academics into study abroad.

“It’s a really big jump for IPS to get involved in something like this,” she said. “Some of the questions I think that we had and will have were answered much better by actually seeing and meeting the students, the teachers, the people on the Thailand side.”

Story booth

A Detroit student speaks: Her charter school promised college tours and art classes. They didn’t exist.

Detroit high school senior Dannah Wilson says a charter school broke promises it made promises to her family.

When Dannah Wilson decided to enroll in a charter school on Detroit’s west side, her family was drawn by the promise of programs like college tours and art classes.

In reality, however, those programs didn’t exist.

“We were made promises by the administration that weren’t kept,” said Wilson, who is now a high school senior at another Detroit charter school.

But when parents and students tried to complain, they discovered that the college that authorized the school’s charter, Bay Mills Community College, was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a five-hour drive from Detroit.

Wilson had been the “poster child” for the school, she said, her face plastered on billboards and brochures for the school.

“I willingly gave,” she said. “But did not receive a quality education in return.”

Wilson discussed her challenges navigating Detroit schools in a story booth outside the School Days storytelling event at the Charles H. Wright Museum last month.

The event, cosponsored by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, featured Detroit parents, educators, and a student telling stories on stage about schools in Detroit.

The event also invited other Detroiters to share their stories in a booth set up by Chalkbeat and the Skillman Foundation. (Skillman also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Last week, we featured a teacher sharing the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class. This week, we’re featuring Wilson, who is part of a family whose children have collectively attended 22 different schools in Detroit in search of a quality education.

Watch Wilson’s story below, and if you have a story to tell about Detroit schools — or know someone who does — please let us know.