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Growing Voucher Program Under Attack

“Indiana school voucher program taking off; lawsuit over popular program will be heard Wednesday”
by Scott Elliott
Indianapolis Star
November 20, 2012

Indiana’s private school voucher program grew at an unprecedented rate this fall, more than doubling the number of students in its second year.

If the state’s program continues to grow at that pace, Indiana could challenge Ohio and Wisconsin as the nation’s biggest program as soon as next year.

However, today the Indiana Supreme Court is to hear arguments challenging the program’s constitutionality.

The Indiana Department of Education announced Thursday that 9,324 students are now signed up for state-funded vouchers to attend private schools statewide, surging from 3,919 students in the first year and making the program the fastest growing in history.

The number of schools participating jumped to 289 from 241. The program is now redirecting more than $38 million in state aid from public schools to private schools, although state officials say it saved $4.2 million that was redistributed among all public schools.

The controversial program is also still under attack.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the biggest statewide teacher’s union, is aiming to shut it down. The ISTA-supported lawsuit before the state Supreme Court today charges the program is an unconstitutional mingling of state money and religious institutions. The vast majority of schools accepting vouchers are religiously affiliated.
“When you look at the dollars coming into program, those are coming right off the top of money going to our public schools,” said Teresa Meredith, ISTA vice president and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I see that as a real concern.”

Indiana’s big voucher numbers are due in large part to the design of the program, which is less limited than those in other states.

Ohio has a statewide program, but it restricts vouchers to communities with failing schools. Wisconsin limits the program to one city — Milwaukee. However, Indiana’s program is open to any student meeting the income guidelines — anywhere in the state.

Ohio’s program, which started in 2006, has more than 13,000 students enrolled. Milwaukee, the nation’s first major voucher program when it was launched in 1990, has more than 19,000.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, defeated in the Nov. 6 election, hailed the state program’s popularity as demonstrating that kids need avenues to attend the schools that best serve their needs.

“Simply put, we are providing our neediest families options they’ve never had before, and they’re taking advantage of the opportunity to select schools that work best for their children,” he said.

Indianapolis Public Schools, one of the state’s largest school systems, has the most students within its boundaries using vouchers of any district in the state at 1,262, up from 644 last year. The number of students who have actually transferred from IPS is 947, up from 365 last year. The rest already were attending private schools using a state program that also made them eligible for vouchers.

Other statistics from the program:

>> Statewide, about 26 percent of voucher students already attended private schools. That’s up from 13 percent last year.

>> Four Indianapolis townships — Warren, Pike, Perry and Lawrence — joined IPS on the list of the 10 districts losing the most students to vouchers statewide. All lost at least 189 students.

>> About 66 percent of voucher students are from metropolitan areas, 18 percent live in suburban areas, and 16 percent come from rural areas and towns.

>> Nearly 81 percent of voucher students are poor enough to qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program.

>> Nearly half of voucher recipients are ethnic minorities, including 20 percent African-American, 19 percent Hispanic and 9 percent multiracial or Asian.

Eligibility for vouchers depends on family income and size. A family of four that earns less than $42,000 annually can receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education. Families of four making $42,000 to $62,000 can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

The voucher law capped the number of students allowed in the program at 7,500 last year and 15,000 this year. But there is no cap going forward unless the legislature decided to add one.