Voucher supporters tout Indiana program’s 1st year

Indiana's school voucher program has finished its first year with enrollment on the rise and supporters trumpeting the program's successes.

Some 4,800 Indiana students have already signed up for vouchers to move this fall from public schools to private schools. That's about 800 more than obtained vouchers this year, and the deadline is still months away.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said the program's first year has been a success because "almost 4,000 kids exercised a choice they didn't previously have."

Indiana lawmakers passed legislation in 2011 giving the state the nation's broadest voucher program. The program's income guidelines are wide and students from all schools — not just failing schools — are eligible.

Despite a compressed time period last year to the establish the program's rules, the voucher program appears to have gone off without any major hitches, The Journal Gazette reported Sunday.

Indiana's average voucher was worth $4,150 this year. A total of $15.5 million in taxpayer dollars was sent to largely religious-affiliated private schools rather than public schools during the program's first year.

That's down slightly from numbers released in the beginning of the year because 327 of the original 3,919 voucher students left their selected private schools during the school year. When voucher students leave, the private schools are required to return the state funding on a prorated basis.

Mary Keefer, principal at Bishop Luers High School, said her school gained 58 voucher students and only four or five left during the school year. She said a few decided it wasn't the right choice for them, and the school asked a few other students to leave.

"We want kids to feel welcome, but we also won't lower our standards, so that's a fine line," she said.

Julie Nieveen, of Warsaw, used a voucher this year for her 13-year-old daughter, Ellie. She said all her other children had gone to public elementary and then Lakeland Christian Academy for middle and high school. She said that for rest of Ellie's K-12 career, the family could see savings of $25,000 under the voucher program.

Indiana's voucher law has been challenged in court by opponents who say it violates the state constitution by funneling tax dollars to religious institutions. But supporters say the program gives families more education options.

Lindsey Brown, executive director of School Choice Indiana, called the program's first year a success in terms of the number of families participating and the compelling stories surrounding the new opportunity.

She said her organization will push lawmakers to open up the program to kindergartners. For now, students must at least try one year in public schools before moving to private schools.

"Our priority is increasing access," Brown said.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he expects several lawmakers to file legislation removing the income limits on the program, but he doesn't think there are enough votes to pass it.

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