School-voucher applications in Indiana double again

The number of Indiana students applying to receive vouchers allowing them to use state money to pay for private schools has more than doubled for a second consecutive year.

The Indiana Department of Education reports it received 20,047 applications for vouchers for the 2013-14 school year. Department spokesman Daniel Altman said education officials won't know how many of those who applied actually used the vouchers, where they are from and what schools they chose to attend. He said most who apply for the vouchers usually use them.

In the three years Indiana has had a school vouchers, the program has grown from 3,919 when it first started in 2011, 12 months after the General Assembly approved the nation's broadest private-school voucher plan, to 9,324 last year.

Betsy Wiley, president of School Choice Indiana, said she was surprised by the number of applicants this year, saying she expected it to be closer to 17,000.

"I think it indicates there is a strong desire for choice by Hoosier families, particularly by those of low and moderate incomes," she said. "I think it is also clear the vast majority of families and students are being well-served in their traditional public schools. I believe 20,000 students is great, but we have a million students in school."

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz is a voucher opponent and has started programs aimed at keeping students in public schools.

Voucher opponents say vouchers hurt public schools by draining state funds from them.

"Superintendent Ritz had been a very strong advocate for public schools throughout Indiana. She was a public school teacher for 37 years before she had this job. She believes in public schools," Altman said.

How much money a student receives depends on family income and the school district they live in, capping out at a maximum $4,700 for elementary school students.

Teresa Brown, the Education Department's assistant superintendent of outreach, said the agency created an outreach division for school improvement in May aimed at improving schools. Thirteen regional coordinators are providing technical support by helping schools as they try to improve.

"Whether that is professional development, or helping them analyze data, or if they need a community partner, or if they need somebody to help them with after-school resources," she said. "They're looking at what schools need to improve student achievement and helping them with that."

Wiley said she doesn't expect to see the number of students applying for vouchers to continue to double. She expects demand to level off because there aren't enough spaces in private schools available. A 2010 study indicated that there were about 22,000 vacant seats available in private schools in Indiana. She said that number likely has grown as some schools have expanded the past several years. She said another capacity study is planned.

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said he has not heard of schools having to turn students away because they are full, but said some are nearing capacity.

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