Voucher students who never tried public school on the rise

Four in 10 students using vouchers never attended an Indiana public school, even though the original 2011 law that authorized the program required it.

The first year, nearly every student in the program – which uses state funds to send lower-income students to private schools – tried out a public school first.

But two years later – after lawmakers expanded the program to give students more options –about 40 percent have no record of attending an Indiana public school.

The statistics are part of a report produced by the Indiana Department of Education and released Monday. It’s the first wide-ranging statistical analysis of the state’s voucher program.

Currently, Indiana has the nation’s broadest private-school voucher program and it’s becoming broader. It offers tuition assistance to families whose income is 150 percent of the federal free or reduced lunch program or less.

Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said he supports vouchers because of the choice it gives students and their parents.

Originally, a student had to satisfy one of two eligibility requirements – complete two semesters in public school or receive an award from a previous scholarship-granting organization.

But, last year, the General Assembly added several more ways a student could qualify. Students who have a disability, live in a school district that received an F grade from the state’s accountability system, or have a sibling who received a voucher are eligible for a voucher. Those pathways allow students to attend a private school with a voucher without ever trying public school.

According to the annual report, 5,225 students of the 5,613 who received a voucher would not have been eligible under the two-semester requirement.

1n 2011, 90 percent of the students using vouchers had previously attended public school. That dropped to 60 percent in 2012 after the eligibility requirements broadened.

Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, said he is troubled that some students never even give the public school system a chance. He said that constitutionally, the state should focus on public schools.

The income criteria for vouchers are linked to the federal free or reduced lunch program guidelines. A student’s family income can be equal to or below 100 percent of those guidelines to receive a 90-percent scholarship, and below 150 percent to receive a 50-percent scholarship.

That means that a family of four whose income is $43,568 or less could apply for a 90-percent scholarship.That same family, with income $63,352 or below, could apply for a 50-percent scholarship.

Battles said he is overall against the voucher system, but since it is in place, the financial guidelines should be stricter.

Already, state law allows a student to continue to receive a 50-percent voucher even if his family’s income increases to as high as 200 percent of the free and reduced lunch guidelines. That’s $87,135 for a family of four.

“What bothers me, is that (bill) gives you a lifetime privilege of being designated in (the low-income) category and having a voucher to use at a charter school or a traditional school, or one of our private institutions,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary prior to the release of the annual report. “We know that your status in life changes.”

The number of Hoosiers using vouchers almost doubled from 2012 to 2013 because the three eligibility paths increased to seven.

In 2011-2012 school year 3,911 students used a voucher to attend a private school. The state paid $15.5 million for scholarships that year.

The maximum amount the state will pay for voucher in the 2013-2014 school years is an estimated $81 million for 19,809 students.

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