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 up to its next challenge: A state court hearing opens today on a lawsuit arguing the program violates Indiana’s constitution.
The Choice Scholarship program, one of a number of education reforms passed and signed into law by Indiana’s Republican-dominated state government during this year’s legislative session, has drawn national attention for a number of bold components. It is the only active state 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 active voucher program 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. Advocates say the voucher program allows all families to make a choice once limited to the well-off; opponents question its constitutionality and wonder if the program is really serving who it’s intended to serve.
Today’s hearing over the program, scheduled to take place in the Marion (County) Superior Court, in Indianapolis, stems from a lawsuit filed by a group of citizens 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 whether public funds can go to private religious institutions. Nearly all of the private schools signed up for the program so far are religiously affiliated.
Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett, who is a defendant in the case along with his fellow Republican, Gov. Mitch Daniels, said in an interview that he believes the law will be upheld. A motion for an injunction was rejected by a judge 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, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, in an interview. “The state tries to make a case the money is not going directly to a religious institution because of the way our voucher law is constructed ... but if we follow the trail of the money, it goes from state to parent to religious institution. Virtually all of the students using vouchers are enrolled in religious schools,” Mr. Schnellenberger said.
As far as providing a more-equal opportunity, Mr. Schnellenberger said, “It’s a concern again that—in certain cases—those private schools would not have to accept students who have either physical or learning disabilities. And that we think that goes against the constitutional requirement for a uniform system.”
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, 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, 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, and Ohio, I think they’ve learned,” he said. “This law was crafted in such a way that it does stand a good chance of holding up through the litigation process.”
If the program does remain in effect, 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 in 2013-14, the cap will be lifted altogether. “The level of participation is not an indication of interest,” said Indiana University’s Mr. Spradlin. “It’s more or less half of the cap, but we shouldn’t interpret it because of the timing of when it passed.”
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 are eligible for the vouchers. Participants can continue to use the vouchers as long as they continue to meet the income requirement.
As more families become interested, more schools are also likely to participate. Of the state’s more-than-400 private schools, 260 accepted vouchers this year; 98 percent of those schools are affiliated with a religious organization.
Of the private schools that didn’t enroll, some are waiting to see how the program unfolds, and “some have philosophical issues and would prefer not to accept state dollars,” said John Elcesser, the executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. But he said he anticipated that more schools would eventually take part in the program.
The law requires participating schools to address certain pieces of Indiana’s government and history in their curricula and participate in state tests, but those requirements 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. State Superintendent Bennett also emphasized that low-performing private schools can be taken out of the program.
Mr. 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. “Over time, it changes,” Mr. Enlow added. “New schools start out and they tend to be more secular.”
Of the first year’s batch of students, 593 were from middle-income families. They qualified for a 50 percent voucher; the rest of the participating students qualified for a full voucher. About 53 percent of the voucher recipients are minority students, while the state’s population is about 84 percent white. Mr. Bennett said the demographic breakdown of voucher recipients is evidence that the program is reaching those it was intended to reach: “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, took a different perspective, pointing to the fact that the percentage of Indiana students enrolled in nonpublic schools has remained constant since 1989. “It doesn’t appear to me that there’s been any great shift. 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 towards tuition at Bishop Luers, which approaches $7,000 for families that don’t belong to Roman Catholic parishes affiliated with the school.
Deborah Torres, a parent of a freshman who moved from a public school to Bishop Luers this year with the help of a voucher, described a dilemma the bill had caused 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, rather than a full, voucher.
“With the economy and different things, you don’t know. It’s scary to know that you may or may not be able to keep your child in a situation you’ve already gone out of your way and prayed about and got them into,” Ms. Torres said.
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 informed parents of the program, and schools reached out through church bulletins and ads, said Mark D. Myers, superintendent of the diocese of Fort Wayne Catholic Schools.
Public schools also stepped up public-relations efforts. Mr. Bennett described a superintendent visiting his office: “Down at the end of his tie was the district logo. And in the middle was written, ‘free tuition to the best school district in Howard County.’” Schools in Kokomo put up signs promoting the district. Mark E. GiaQuinta of the Fort Wayne Community School Board said the district had also run a principal-for-a-day program for “community leaders, especially skeptics.”
Karyle M. Green, superintendent of East Allen Community Schools, said her district would reach out to students who’d left: “We’re going to be contacting our people in the spring and see if they’re happy after they’ve left us, if there’s anything we can do to get them to come back.”
State Superintendent Bennett and other advocates of the program said this sort of competition was one of the goals of the voucher program and 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. That data is currently held by the state education department for privacy reasons. “We understand we are in a consumer-driven society. We believe that we are offering a high-quality product for our students, and we continually strive to do better,” Ms. Stockman said, “If there’s something more that people are looking for that people expect of us, we want to know about that.”
In November, school districts received a memo from the state education department stating how much money would leave their budgets due to the voucher program. The agency retracted the memo soon afterward 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.”
In East Allen, the district’s enrollment declined from 9,996 to 9,408, said Ms. Green, the superintendent. The decline included 90 students who left using vouchers.
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 schools’ overall share of 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 analysis from the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington.
Superintendent Bennett said he felt claims that the voucher program was about privatizing public education were “disingenuous.”
“Folks who talk about it being about privatizing education disguise that argument under the veil that nothing in education has ever been privatized,” he said, alluding to textbooks and transportation services provided by private companies. “My belief is the voucher program is part of a comprehensive system that puts accountability and freedom into education.”
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, and can ask students who do not meet behavioral or academic standards to leave.
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. I don’t want to set a child up for failure. 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. Ms. Keefer said it was difficult to let students go, but “everybody who comes, new freshmen and upperclassmen, has to acclimate.”
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. State Superintendent Bennett said that he would support a special education voucher program.
As private schools begin enrollment for next year and the law moves through the courts, Indiana schools and families are waiting to see if enrollment will increase and how the program will impact schools around the state. Rumors have spread about families withdrawing children from private schools in order to become eligible for the program and return to the private schools; Indiana University’s Mr. Spradlin pointed to St. Charles Borromeo School in Fort Wayne as a school that had seen some students leave.
Public and private schools around the state are looking at their own enrollment lists and budgets with that uncertainty in mind. At Bishop Luers, principal Keefer is considering converting part-time classrooms to full-time classrooms, using offices for classes, and hiring more teachers. In the public schools, superintendents will see budget numbers reflecting departures due to the voucher program in January.
Frank A. Bush, president of the Indiana State School Boards Association, said, “Whether these reforms we’re seeing in Indiana, which have many components beyond vouchers, 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.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.