INDIANAPOLIS – Participation in the state’s voucher program more than doubled statewide this year, with Fort Wayne Community Schools losing more than 500 additional students to area private schools.
That brings the total to 1,165 students from within Fort Wayne Community Schools’ boundaries using state-paid vouchers.
Only Indianapolis Public Schools had a larger number at 1,262.
In all, 9,324 students statewide took advantage of the state’s expansive voucher program – up from 3,919 last year, the first year the state offered vouchers.
And $38 million in state funds flowed to private schools under the program this year.
The data was released by the Indiana Department of Education the day before the Indiana Supreme Court hears oral arguments about the constitutionality of the voucher program. Opponents allege state funds should not be supporting church activities. Most of the private schools are religious-based.
Once again, thousands of Hoosier families made powerful choices for their children, choices made possible by Indiana’s commitment to educational options for all students – regardless of background, income or ZIP code, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said. 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.
Indiana’s program is growing rapidly partly because it has fewer limitations than other states and jurisdictions. For instance, children don’t have to be in a failing school to leave.
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.
In FWCS, the 1,165 is a cumulative number. About 390 of those students left last year with 529 more this year. The rest were students already in private schools through a scholarship-granting organization.
Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman said the numbers released Tuesday are no surprise, as the district has been closely tracking student retention since the voucher program began.
She said the district will lose nearly $7 million in state funding.
It starts to get to be a pretty big number when you look at the cumulative effect, she said.
One of the district’s top-rated schools, Arlington Elementary School, which received an A rating from the state, has been one of the schools with the most students leaving, Stockman said.
What frustrates us is the idea that the legislators who wanted this voucher program wanted it to be available so that if people’s children were in failing schools, they would have the option to go somewhere else. That’s not what we’re seeing, she said.
For instance, three private schools in the state that just received an F rating from the state in annual school accountability rankings received almost $1 million for 222 voucher students this year.
One of those – Cornerstone Christian College Preparatory School in Fort Wayne – now has 116 voucher students out of a full enrollment of 156.
Cornerstone received $536,000 in state funding even though it is considered a failing school.
Our numbers have changed dramatically, Cornerstone Principal Stephanie Underwood said.
She believes the voucher program is great to have available to Hoosier families, but it might take some time to uncover what it really means for students.
Underwood described last year as a baseline that will lead to growth for Cornerstone students.
A lot of them didn’t have the necessary tools when they got here, Underwood said. That’s been part of the growth – understanding that learning doesn’t take place when the child is worried about so many other things going on in their lives.
This year was the first year Cornerstone received a state rating, a requirement after the school decided to accept vouchers.
But there are many A-rated private schools taking vouchers. And the school-by-school rankings were not made public before parents registered their children and applied for the vouchers this year.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, who highlighted voucher students and parents Tuesday during his legislative opening day speech, said he isn’t sure the A-F rankings are solid.
There has been controversy this year over changes to the model by Bennett, who just lost his re-election bid.
There are a lot of questions about the grading system, Bosma said. Even if it’s the case, parental choice and the injection of some reasonable competition into our education system is precisely the point of the program.
He went on to say he has heard from many parents, often in tearful conversations, about the ability to send their child to a school that is right for their family.
That’s what this is all about – to empower parents of lower means to have the same ability that most of the rest of us have and that’s to pick a school, he said.