Part of Kelly Pence's job is counseling parents of children with autism on educational options, and she's noticed a change in the questions parents ask.
Few want to know whether they should use Indiana's School Choice Scholarship program's vouchers to send their children to a private or parochial school.
“A lot of our parents just aren't using them,” said Pence, a mother of two high school children with autism from Garrett.
“A part of that is just because we have such a difficult time getting services in the first place that wherever you're getting the services you need, you tend to stay there because moving requires starting over. It's a hassle,” Pence said.
Since 2011, Indiana's voucher program, touted by supporters as a model for the nation, has allowed parents meeting income guidelines to use government money to educate their children outside public schools.
But relatively few students with special educational needs appear to be using vouchers.
That has led critics to charge that nonpublic schools are discriminating against such students – and that the program is concentrating students with more complicated diagnoses and more expensive needs in public schools, draining them of resources.
State Department of Education enrollment statistics show that since 2011-2012, the first year for vouchers, the statewide percentage of special education students enrolled in nonpublic schools has increased, from 2.9 percent to 3.5 percent in 2016-2017.
But that is smaller than the increase in special education students in public schools in that time – about 10 percent.
And, unlike public schools, which must provide a free and appropriate education to all eligible children or run afoul of disability law, nonpublic schools are not held to that standard and can refuse admission to students, including those with special needs.
Fort Wayne Superintendent Wendy Robinson said that amounts to discrimination based on disability.
“It's now down to a business – 'How can I attract your students away, but I only want certain ones,'” she said.
“We even have examples of there are four kids in a family – three of them are gen(eral) ed(ucation) and one is special ed. They actually say to (parents), 'Fort Wayne does such a better job with special education students. The other three we can help you with, but we really don't have services for your special education student.'”
Mark GiaQuinta, former president of the FWCS board, said local enrollment numbers reflect the situation.
Since vouchers, FWCS consistently has had between 14.5 and 15.5 percent of students in special education, for a total of 4,514 students last school year.
Meanwhile, a selection of area parochial schools willing to accept students with vouchers – Central Lutheran School in New Haven, Bishop Dwenger and Bishop Luers high schools in Fort Wayne and Aboite Christian School – had far fewer.
The schools had between no students (Aboite Christian) and 6.2 percent (Luers) in special education last year, for a total of 104 students. State statistics don't reveal how many of those students used vouchers.
“We don't have the choice not to accept (special needs students), and we don't avoid them,” GiaQuinta said. “All children are entitled to a quality education. It's just that private schools can pick pretty much who they want.”
Jon Mielke, superintendent of the Lutheran Schools of Indiana, affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn't see it that way. The law allows parents to make a decision to use a private school they might not otherwise be able to afford, he said in an emailed statement.
And area Lutheran schools “work closely with public school leaders and teachers in efforts to help identify and agree on the types of services that are needed and provided. We willingly collaborate to serve the best interests of students.
“No special-needs resources would flow from the public schools to the nonpublic schools unless there were children enrolled that required those services,” the statement added. “The legislative intent is that those resources would serve the child.”
Phil Downs, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, says his district willingly serves nonpublic schools' special-needs students, who can elect to have the public school provide specialized services and therapies.
Specialists even go to nonpublic schools if the school doesn't have an appropriate staff member. “It's just unwieldy,” he said.
Two or three special-needs students with vouchers leave a nonpublic school for the Southwest Allen public district every year, he said.
Emelie Workman of Fort Wayne, a parent of two special-needs children, had her children do just that.
Workman said she would have preferred having her children educated in a religious environment, and she liked the small class size and the individualized attention in the smaller religious school they attended for a time.
But she found no guarantee that their needs would be met.
Even though a special-needs child's Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a legal document and presumably binding, only in a public school are there procedures in place if things don't go well, she said.
In a nonpublic school, there may be no other recourse than removal if a child has behavioral issues stemming from a disability or a parent is told the child's needs can't be met, Workman said.
And, when there are already too few therapists to go around, children in nonpublic schools may be last on the list to get services, added the woman, who has been affiliated with About Special Kids (ASK), a statewide parent support organization.
Workman recommends any parent of a special-needs student talk with other parents and educators at prospective schools before making educational decisions – and then stay on top of their students' progress.
Her children are both back in public schools. “Academically, I don't see much of a difference,” Workman said. “Behaviorally, I feel their needs are being met, and I feel a little more that staff are trained so they can be met.
“They're doing OK for what they need to be doing.”
Pence said many parents of special-needs students are trying to find alternatives to vouchers and to the public schools.
Home schooling is one, she said, and online schooling is booming. “We're seeing a huge shift in our population on the autism spectrum that way,” said Pence, who also works as a parent ally for the Autism Society of Indiana.
Students in one such online school, the Indiana Connections Academy, are still able to access sports and extracurricular activities of public schools and have the same curriculum, testing and graduation requirements, she said.
“For me, it's forget the dumb voucher system and go with what these kids need, which is more training and resources (for teachers). I just think there are so many of us who have struggled to make it (the voucher system) work. ... We're tired.”
About this series
The Journal Gazette teamed up with HuffPost for an in-depth look at the School Choice Program, commonly referred to as vouchers.
Stories by Journal Gazette reporters Niki Kelly, Ashley Sloboda and Rosa Salter Rodriguez and HuffPost reporter Rebecca Klein examine how the initial concept in Indiana expanded, the faith-based curriculum some schools use, whether vouchers are affecting the demographics of schools and where students with special educational needs attend, and effect on home school enrollment. We also profile two Fort Wayne schools and share the stories of students.
An interactive online map allows you to click on Allen County schools to discover their demographics and other information.
You can find the stories at http://www.journalgazette.net/news/local/schools/vouchers