Indiana could be top state for school vouchers

Indiana’s private school tuition voucher program appears poised to become the nation’s largest this year.

Preliminary data from the Indiana Department of Education shows 29,437 Indiana children applied for vouchers, which allow low- and middle-income families to redirect tax dollars intended to support their public school educations to instead pay private school tuition.

Final figures for how many of the applicants actually are awarded vouchers won’t be available until next month, but the number of applicants suggests a huge jump in voucher use is likely. Last year, 19,809 children used vouchers to attend private schools in Indiana. In recent years, the number of applicants has tracked closely to the final number of recipients.

A final number close to 30,000 would vault Indiana’s program to largest in the nation. Since it was launched in 2011, Indiana’s voucher program has been by far the fastest growing in U.S. history. The program had 3,919 enrolled the first year and 9,324 in its second year.

Proponents argue vouchers allow poor children to escape failing schools for better educational opportunities at generally higher-scoring private schools. Those who oppose vouchers say they hurt public schools by siphoning off critical dollars needed to provide good instruction, benefiting a small group of children at the expense of the majority.

Betsy Wiley, president of the pro-voucher Institute for Quality Education, based in Indianapolis, hailed the apparent strong growth of the Indiana’s program.

“The continued growth of Indiana’s voucher program is proof that Hoosier parents want school choice,” she said in a written statement. “Access to a school that best meets the educational needs of a student should not be determined by where they live or family income.”

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, declined comment on the growth in applications until the final number of vouchers is announced next month. Public, private and charter schools across Indiana just submitted enrollment counts for the new school year, including the number of students using vouchers, so it will take time for the education department to count and verify that data, Altman said. Ritz has publicly opposed vouchers.

There are two types of voucher programs nationally: those generally available to low-income families and those targeted to specific types of students, such as those with disabilities. Indiana has the first kind, but its rules have always been more relaxed than general voucher programs in other states, helping to fuel such dramatic growth.

For example, some states restrict vouchers just to students who attended failing schools or cap the number of students who can receive vouchers. Indiana has no cap and allows students across the state to apply if they fall below the income limits, regardless of how good or poorly their prior school performed on state tests.

Last year, Indiana had the second most general vouchers in the U.S., behind only Wisconsin with 26,700 vouchers.

Only Florida’s voucher program for disabled students — the other type of voucher — was larger, with 27,040 enrolled. Indiana could eclipse both of those states when the final numbers are released.

In Indiana, children can qualify for vouchers based on their family’s size and yearly income. A family of four making less than $43,500 qualifies to spend up to 90 percent of the per student state aid amount their school districts receive on tuition. Families of four making more than that amount, but less than $65,250, can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

Per student state aid varies by district. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, is about $8,000 per student. A maximum of $4,700 can be spent on private school tuition for elementary schools. There is no such cap for high schools.

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