Indiana voucher growth slows significantly

After five years of rapid growth, the number of students attending private school using public funds appears to be plateauing in Indiana. This year, the state’s voucher program grew by 12 percent, the smallest bump since it launched in 2011.

Still, the state already has among the largest voucher programs in the nation. This year, 32,686 kids got vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools — 2.89 percent of Hoosier students, according to the latest annual report released Thursday by the Indiana Department of Education.

In the first year after the state introduced vouchers, which allow low- and middle-income students to use public money to attend private schools, just 3,911 students participated. The number of vouchers has grown each year since as the state has broadened the pool of students who may receive vouchers.

Now, as legislators continue to tinker with the eligibility rules, the number of families applying for vouchers under the current guidelines appears to be reaching equilibrium. Most of the other results in the report are in line with data from prior years, and it elicited familiar responses from voucher advocates and critics alike.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she was surprised to see that more than 50 percent of students accepting vouchers had never attended a public school.

“How many of the kids that are actually receiving vouchers were ever going to go to a public school anyway?” Meredith said. “I think it shows that it’s really not helping the kids that it was promised to help.”

A family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive a voucher of up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. A family earning up to $89,725 per year is eligible for half the state aid their district would receive.

Since the program launched, private school enrollment has grown — but less rapidly than voucher use, suggesting that while some new students attend private school because of vouchers, other recipients would attend private school regardless of whether they received public money.

This year, the Indiana General Assembly made a relatively minor — but hotly contested — change to eligibility guidelines. A provision in House Bill 1005 would eliminate rules in state law that limit students to just one voucher per school year. The new rules go into effect in 2017.

Supporters said the legislation helps give students who are struggling access to schools throughout the year, but critics argue it further expands the use of vouchers in the state.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said earlier this year that while she wasn’t seeking to reduce the state’s current voucher system, she was opposed to measures such as those in the House bill that could help the program grow.

In response to the latest report, Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, which advocates for vouchers and school choice programs, hailed the voucher program as a success, noting that 95 percent of students stayed in the program the entire year.

“What I think this program has done is created a really diverse set of school options that parents can figure out what’s best for their kids and choose,” Enlow said. “We’re really proud of this program.”