Impact of new Indiana voucher law may not be felt for years

School-choice supporters across the state hailed the signing last month of a law giving Indiana the nation’s most sweeping private school voucher program.

But most private-school leaders concede that any significant impact the law will have on enrollments likely won’t be felt for at least a few years, as they and parents sort through the details of the program.

“What we hear nationally is that school choice programs typically happen slowly,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. “We don’t think there will be a major bump in enrollment this year.”

Gov. Mitch Daniels, who signed the legislation May 5, and other supporters say the law will give parents more choices.

The voucher program uses taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private and religious schools. The plan is based on a sliding income scale, with families of four making more than $60,000 qualifying for some level of scholarship if they switch from public to private schools.

Students are eligible for a maximum $4,500 annual grant, which supporters say won’t cost the state anything because the money would be used as part of the school funding formula.

A push to expand voucher programs nationwide has gained steam following Republican gains in the 2010 elections. But Indiana’s proposal differs from existing programs.

Most voucher programs across the country are limited to lower-income households, students in failing schools or specific areas.

Indiana’s program is open to a much larger pool of students, including those already enrolled in good school systems. It’s limited to 7,500 students the first year and 15,000 the second, a fraction of the state’s 1 million students. But within three years, there will be no limit on the number of children who could enroll.

The law does carry a few stipulations. Eligible students need to log at least two semesters in a public school, and only second-graders and up are eligible.

That part of the law bothers Andrew Hart, head of school at The Oaks Academy at 23rd Street and Park Avenue.

“Boy, I wish that kindergarten students were eligible to access vouchers; wouldn’t that be great?” he said.

Founded in 1998, Oaks Academy serves pre-kindergartners through eighth-graders and has 342 students.

Half of its student body is considered low-income. So Hart wishes the law allowed families of kindergartners to apply for the grant, because the school is at capacity. A new student is accepted only when another leaves.

Oaks Academy directors have approved a second school, on the east side, which is slated to open in the fall of 2012. The voucher program could help fill enrollment then, but only for students in second grade and above.

In any event, academy directors have not decided whether the school will participate in the voucher program.

The four schools that make up Mother Theodore Catholic Academies should be able to make better use of the voucher program than Oaks Academy.

The schools—Central Catholic, St. Philip Neri, Holy Cross Central and Holy Angels—have a combined enrollment of 700 students and between 50 and 75 spots available among them.

Details of how the schools might participate have not been determined, though Connie Zittnan, executive director of Mother Theodore, is certain they will.

“Because we predominantly serve the underserved, the voucher program will directly impact many of the new students who will be attending our schools,” she said. “I know we will have students who will participate.”

Existing supply available at schools such as the Catholic schools will be filled first by the voucher program, predicted Robert Enlow, president of Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice. Schools then will expand to accommodate any growing enrollment, followed by the opening of new schools, he said.

“It does take some time to ramp these programs up,” Enlow said.

However, Enlow said Indiana’s program might see quicker results than others because the roughly 600,000 students who could qualify under income guidelines will be eligible in the third year of the program.

About 700 private schools operate in Indiana.

Elcesser in May helped host a statewide webinar on the voucher topic that drew interest from 200 private schools.

He said many schools are sorting through details of the legislation to determine whether they want to participate. He expects a “significant number” will. But some may have reservations about increased regulation and expenses, he said, as operating costs increase with the absorption of more students into classrooms.

The voucher program could affect not only public school enrollment but charter school enrollment, as well.

Charters are public schools free of many state regulations. About 23,000 students in Indiana are enrolled in 60 charter schools, including 27 in Indianapolis.

Russ Simnick, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said most charters already have a waiting list and dismissed any fears of enrollment loss.

“Competition is good for about any sector, including education,” he said. “It makes you sharpen your pencil more.”

As part of Daniels’ aggressive education agenda, he also signed a bill that allows more entities to authorize charter schools and lets charter schools cheaply buy unused buildings owned by traditional school corporations. The bill also increases accountability rules for charters.•

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