Standardized test scores were released by the Indiana Department of Education this week, along with a reminder that they reflect the results of a school year conducted during a pandemic.
Coronavirus also appeared to have an effect on overall school enrollment, including participation in the voucher program. The state's latest Choice Scholarship Program report shows participation and cost were down slightly in an academic year overshadowed by COVID-19. Voucher cost is likely to skyrocket this year, with the pandemic waning and income eligibility and the size of the entitlement expanded.
For the 2020-21 academic year, however, the number of voucher students and participating schools decreased. That's the first time in the voucher program's 10-year history those numbers have fallen. The past school year saw the number of voucher students decrease by 1,009, to a total of 35,698. There were 324 participating schools statewide, or two fewer than the previous year.
Total enrollment in public schools also decreased last year, by 11,071 students. But the percentage of Indiana students enrolled in public schools saw a slight increase, to 92.8% of total Indiana enrollment.
While the number of voucher students decreased by just over 2.7% last year, the total cost of the voucher program fell by 1.2%, from $172.77 million in 2019-20 to $170.68 million in 2020-21. The past year's decrease followed a 7% increase in voucher program cost the previous academic year. Indiana taxpayers have now paid more than $1.3 billion in private and parochial school tuition since 2011.
The majority of households receiving vouchers report annual income between $25,000 and $75,000, but almost a quarter of voucher households earn $75,000 or more annually. The number of voucher recipient households earning $100,000-plus increased from 1,594 to 1,830 last year.
That number will grow next year, when legislation approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly expands eligibility guidelines to three times the maximum income allowed to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. A family of four can now earn up to $145,000 a year to qualify for vouchers.
In addition, the law was changed to increase the voucher award. Families at the higher end of the income scale formerly qualified for entitlement payments of 50%, 70% or 90% of the per-pupil tuition amount paid to their local school district. Under the new law, all families will be awarded vouchers equal to 90% of per-pupil tuition.
There are eight ways to qualify for a voucher, including through tax-credit scholarships awarded by private and religious organizations. Once approved, students remain eligible for vouchers as long as their families don't exceed the generous income cap.
While the state's voucher program was touted as a way for students to escape “failing” public schools, the percentage of voucher students who never attended a public school continued its upward climb last year. It now stands at 61.6%.
Voucher participation was down within each of Allen County's four public school districts. In the Fort Wayne Community Schools district, there were 371 fewer students enrolled in voucher schools. Most of the county's Choice Scholarship schools saw decreases in voucher enrollment. The number of voucher students at Bishop Dwenger High School fell from 448 to 432. Concordia Lutheran High School fell from 371 to 294. Blackhawk Christian Elementary School decreased from 311 to 279, although its high school voucher enrollment held steady at 202.
The biggest voucher enrollment increase was at International Leadership School, where the number of voucher participants ballooned from 52 to 199. Voucher payments from the Indiana Department of Education to the Islamic school increased year-over-year from about $310,000 to $1.13 million.
Look for voucher enrollment – and cost to taxpayers – to increase there this fall, along with most other Choice Scholarship schools. The historic school funding investment the General Assembly approved for public schools is also a boon to voucher schools. Students next year will receive 90% of the per-pupil tuition support payment for the school district in which they reside or the total private-school tuition cost, whichever is less.
Indiana's voucher program, like most entitlement programs, isn't going away. But Hoosiers should be aware of its growing cost and should demand more transparency on how those voucher dollars are used.