Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Wednesday the state won't look to Indiana's K-12 schools to help make up pandemic-induced budget shortfalls. That's good news for both public schools and the 326 private and parochial schools taxpayers help support through the state's voucher program. But his administration and the Republican-controlled General Assembly will be hard-pressed to continue that support as the program's costs continue to grow.
The Indiana Department of Education released its annual school voucher report this week, showing $172.7 million spent last year on private and parochial schools, a year-over-year increase of 7%. In the nine years since it began, the Choice Scholarship program has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion.
When the fall campaign season gets underway, Statehouse candidates should be prepared to share their views on the growing cost of funding two Indiana school systems. In a struggling economy, can we afford it?
As the cost of the voucher program increased by 7%, the number of students participating increased by just over 1%. Voucher enrollment actually declined in the fall, the first time in the program's nine-year history, according to the report. But voucher eligibility was expanded to add a second enrollment period from Nov. 1 to Jan. 15, so that 459 more students enrolled for spring.
Coincidentally, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence chose this week to tout school choice as an answer to racial injustice.
“We're fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights of all time in this country,” Trump said in remarks in a White House Rose Garden news conference. “Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade and probably beyond because all children have to have access to quality education.”
“Joe Biden claims he supports the American dream, but won't allow African American families to choose their kid's school,” Pence tweeted Wednesday. “You shouldn't be denied the ability to choose your school because of your zip code or income.”
Indiana's Choice Scholarship program hasn't seen a stampede of minority students to private and parochial schools. Fewer black students received vouchers this past year than in the previous school year. While the percentage of Indiana children younger than 18 who are black is 14%, the percentage of black students participating in the voucher program is 11.79%. Hispanic youth make up 25% of Indiana youth 18 and under but 22% receive vouchers. White youth make up 50% of Hoosiers under 18 but nearly 57% of voucher recipients.
The voucher program's formal name suggests enrollment is based on academic merit, but household income determines eligibility. The program is not, however, reserved for poverty-level families. Among households with a total income of $75,000 or more, participation in the voucher program grew by 358 families last year, to 4,174 households. For those earning $100,000-plus, participation increased by 277, to 1,594 households, or about 7% of voucher families.
“The average household size and income for 2019-2020 are 4.82 and $55,440.69, respectively,” the report states.
Geographically, voucher enrollment declined in urban areas last year while growing in towns and rural and suburban areas. That held true for the state's largest school district, Fort Wayne Community Schools, which saw a decrease of voucher enrollment within its boundaries, from 4,642 in 2018-19 to 4,463 this year. Southwest Allen County Schools also saw a decrease in voucher enrollment, while East Allen and Northwest Allen County Schools saw small increases.
While the number of private and parochial schools accepting vouchers declined from 329 to 326 schools last year, there were two additional voucher schools operating in Allen County: Alyssum Montessori School, which received $66,592 in voucher support and International Leadership School, which received $309,871. The latter, an Islamic school formerly located in a storefront on Parnell Avenue, is conducting a GoFundMe campaign to raise $35,000 for a new building.
International Leadership School isn't the only school struggling financially. As traditional public schools, serving 88% of Indiana's 1.1 million students, prepare to open, they will require additional investment to cover COVID-19-related costs in the classroom, in transportation, health care and other areas. To ease the pressure on the budget that supports public schools, a discussion about reining in voucher growth is overdue, beginning with candidates for office. Supporting two school systems is growing ever more costly.