Indiana Grapples With Impact of Voucher Law
Nearly 4,000 students sign up for program—even as it faces a court challenge
As the 3,919 students who participated in the first year of Indiana's new, wide-reaching school voucher program near the end of the first semester in their new schools, the program faces its next challenge: A state court hearing opened on Dec. 19 on a lawsuit arguing the program violates Indiana's constitution.
The Choice Scholarship program, one of a number of education changes enacted by Indiana's Republican-dominated state government during the 2011 legislative session, has drawn national attention for a number of bold components. It is the only active voucher program in the country that is not limited to low-income students or students who have attended a low-performing school, and the only one with no eventual cap on enrollment.
With the program moving into full gear, public schools across the state are bracing for an outflow of funds from already-tight budgets, while private schools prepare for an increased demand for spaces in their classrooms. Meanwhile, debate still rages over the initiative as schools and families consider the financial, educational, and social consequences of a program that is projected to grow substantially.
The hearing that opened last month in the Marion County superior court, in Indianapolis, stems from a lawsuit filed by a group of residents with backing from the National Education Association. It questions whether the voucher program meets Indiana's constitutional obligation to provide a common education to its students and asks whether public funds can go to private institutions. Nearly all the private schools signed up for the program so far are religiously affiliated.
Indiana schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, who is a defendant in the case along with fellow Republican, Gov. Mitch Daniels, said in an interview that he believes the law will be upheld. A judge rejected a motion for an injunction this summer, and the law went into effect as scheduled on July 1.
"We continue to believe in the merits of the case," countered Nate G. Schnellenberger, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the NEA. The judge's ruling is expected later this week, but the law will likely not be free of legal challenges for a while. John M. West, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said appeals were likely however the judge rules. Rick Muir, the president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said his union was also in the process of developing a lawsuit.
The legal precedent is unclear: Challenges to voucher programs in other states have yielded "a mixed bag" of results, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research and information-sharing organization.
But Indiana's law was built with the lessons of other states' programs in mind, said Terry E. Spradlin, the director for education policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, at Indiana University in Bloomington. "Based on experiences in Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, I think they've learned," he said.
Rolling Out the Plan
The law went into effect on July 1, and applications were due Sept. 16, leaving families little time to apply. Students who had spent the previous two semesters in Indiana public schools or who were attending private school on certain state-funded scholarships were eligible for the vouchers. Families can use the vouchers as long as they meet the income requirement.
School officials anticipate that far more than 3,919 students eventually will enroll. This school year, the law would have permitted 7,500 vouchers. That cap jumps to 15,000 next year, and will be lifted altogether in 2013-14. "The level of participation [this school year] is not an indication of interest," said Indiana University's Mr. Spradlin.
More schools are also likely to participate. Of the state's 400-plus private schools, 260 accepted vouchers this school year.
Of the private schools that didn't enroll, some are waiting to see how the program unfolds, and "some would prefer not to accept state dollars," said John Elcesser, the executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. He said he anticipated that more schools would eventually take part in the program.
The law includes some requirements for schools that receive vouchers, but they are "not a real heavy lift for state-accredited schools" like the state's Roman Catholic schools, which are used to meeting certain state requirements, Mr. Elcesser said.
Superintendent Bennett suggested that new, nonreligious schools might form to take advantage of the program.
Robert C. Enlow, the president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indiana-based advocacy group, said that has been the tendency in other states.
Mr. Bennett also emphasized that low-performing private schools can be taken out of the program.
Of the first year's batch of students, 593 were from middle-income families, that qualified for a 50 percent voucher. About 53 percent of the voucher recipients are minority students, while the state's population is 84 percent white. Mr. Bennett said the demographic breakdown of voucher recipients is evidence that the program fulfills its goal: "When we first proposed this, that was the exact demographic that many folks were saying would be left in public schools."
Jon G. Ellis, the executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, has a different perspective, noting that the percentage of Indiana students in nonpublic schools has remained constant since 1989. "We've always had about 5 percent looking for a way to leave public schools. We've just decided to pay them to look for a way," he said.
According to Jenny S. Andorfer, the director of admissions at the private Bishop Luers High School, in Fort Wayne, "I had a lot of people call me and register subsequently once they knew the voucher program had passed. But, really, the majority of our voucher monies went to students that we already had registered to come here for this school year."
Ms. Andorfer had reached out to students whom she noticed might qualify. This year, 59 students used a voucher toward tuition at Bishop Luers, which is between $5,500 and $6,500.
Parent Bonita Gaston learned about the program when she visited the Roman Catholic school last spring. Her sons Charles Gaston, 17, and Jeremiah Gaston, 15, now attend the school on full vouchers. "It's amazing how all of this came about for my family," Ms. Gaston said. "I want to put it out there for more minority people."
Deborah Torres, a parent of a freshman who moved from a public school to Bishop Luers this year with the help of a voucher, said the bill had caused a dilemma for her family: The Torres's were eligible for a full voucher this year, but "if we made $200 more, it would cause $3,000 more in tuition for us," as they would be eligible only for a partial voucher.
To help its schools with the transition, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend hired a school choice specialist. Advocacy groups like School Choice Indiana hosted outreach events, and schools reached out through church bulletins, said Mark D. Myers, the superintendent of the diocese of the Fort Wayne Catholic schools.
Public schools also stepped up public-relations efforts. Mr. Bennett described a superintendent's tie that read "free tuition to the best school district in Howard County." Schools in Kokomo put up signs promoting the local district. Mark E. GiaQuinta of the Fort Wayne Community School Board said the district ran a principal-for-a-day program for "community leaders, especially skeptics."
Karyle M. Green, the superintendent of the East Allen Community Schools, said her district would reach out to students who'd left to "see if there's anything we can do to get them to come back."
Mr. Bennett and other advocates of the program said that sort of competition would lead to better public schools.
But Krista J. Stockman, a spokeswoman for the Fort Wayne Community Schools, said public schools could use more data about which students were leaving and why. "If there's something more that people are looking for, we want to know," Ms. Stockman said. Those data are currently held by the state education department for privacy reasons.
In November, school districts received a memo from the state education department stating how much money would be cut from their budgets because of the voucher program. The agency retracted the memo soon afterwards and later issued a clarification. The initial memo "gave superintendents an [inaccurate] impression that there'd be an immediate hit and that it wouldn't have to do with how many students were taking vouchers," said Stephanie Sample, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.
That's only somewhat reassuring to districts. Fort Wayne's Ms. Stockman said, "We stand to lose as much as $2.4 million in state funding with 392 students taking vouchers. But we're not able to cut teachers or cut expenses, because we're not losing 30 students in 3rd grade at one school. We're losing them across the district."
Advocates argue that the program eventually will save the state money.
"The voucher program only takes 70 percent or 90 percent of the per-student allocation," said Ms. Sample. If a child withdraws from a private school, the state will receive a prorated refund from the school. The savings from the vouchers are in the state's general fund, said Ms. Sample, and the department will distribute savings to schools in late spring or early summer based on the state funding formula. But there are still kinks to be worked out, and a state tax credit for parents sending their children to private schools may negate those savings, according to an analysis from the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington.
Opponents of the program question whether the private schools are really an option for all students. Private schools are able to select the students who attend their schools.
At Bishop Luers, Principal Mary T. Keefer said she'd only rejected two students who'd applied: "One was a senior and only had 17 credits. Our state requires 49. Her brother had straight Fs on his 8th grade report card." Two of the initial 59 students have also been asked to leave the school due to behavioral issues.
Mr. Ellis, of the superintendents association, was critical of such risks: "We don't want our students leaving a school because of a glitzy ad campaign only to find that they don't meet the standards of the neighborhood Catholic school."
The situation is particularly knotty for special-needs students; currently, there is no special-needs voucher program, and students with certain disabilities who enroll in private schools sometimes need services provided only at public schools.
Mr. Bennett said that he would support a special education voucher program.
Indiana schools and families are waiting to see if enrollment will increase and how the program will affect schools around the state. Families at schools including St. Charles Borromeo School in Fort Wayne have withdrawn children from private schools in order to become eligible for the program.
At Bishop Luers, Ms. Keefer is considering using offices for classes and hiring more teachers. In the public schools, superintendents will see budget numbers reflecting departures this month.
Frank A. Bush, the president of the Indiana State School Boards Association, said, "Whether these reforms we're seeing in Indiana have staying power remains to be seen. But it's clear we're in a parental-choice era. ... The debate's over in many ways. Public school officials are going to have to understand they have to be active in making the public understand that they're doing the job that needs to be done to educate kids."
Vol. 31, Issue 15, Pages 1,14-15