The number of students using state-funded vouchers to attend private schools has jumped by more than 47 percent this school year, according to preliminary numbers confirmed by state education officials.
In all, 29,146 elementary, middle and high school students—about 3 percent of the overall student population—are now using vouchers. That’s compared to 19,809 last year.
Democrats released the numbers Friday, saying they are evidence that the voucher program supported by Republicans is stealing money from public schools.
“If we continue to see this kind of explosive growth in vouchers over the next few years, how is that going to help make our public schools whole again?” said Rep. Greg Porter, the ranking Democrat on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. “If more funding is provided for education, how much will have to be siphoned off to pay for vouchers?”
But supporters maintain the voucher program simply gives lower- and middle-income parents a choice in where their children will be educated.
Majority House Republicans announced earlier this month that they intend to boost funding for schools during the 2015 legislative session—although they didn’t offer specifics. But Democrats say if the number of students using vouchers continues to increase, public schools might not actually receive any of the additional money.
Public schools receive funding based on the number of students that are enrolled. Schools that lose students when some transfer to private schools receive fewer dollars.
That money is then used to fund the vouchers, although private schools don’t generally receive as much per student as their public school counterparts. Any savings—the difference between the voucher and what the public school would have received—is then reinvested in education.
“Every dollar that goes toward vouchers is taken away from public schools that do not have the ability to pick and choose who they get to educate,” Porter said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for House Republicans did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the Democrats’ claims or the new voucher numbers. Neither did a spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Pence, who has supported the program.
The Department of Education confirmed that the numbers released by Porter are accurate. But the agency won’t release a full report on voucher use until January when officials have gathered more data, said spokesman Daniel Altman.
The voucher program has been growing since then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Republican-controlled General Assembly launched it in 2011 as the broadest such program in the nation. In the first school year that vouchers were available—2011-2012—more than 3,900 students took advantage of the program.
The state paid $15.5 million for the vouchers that year.
During the 2013-2014 school year, when nearly 20,000 students participated, the state spent roughly $81 million on the program.
The cost for just the first half of the current school year is $57.9 million, according to the Department of Education. That could bring the total cost of the full year to more than $115 million.
The growth in the program is due in part to changes lawmakers made last year that increased the number of students who are eligible.
In general, the program offers tuition assistance to families whose income is 150 percent of the federal free and reduced lunch program or less. Originally, it was open only to students who had tried public school first.
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.
That led to a significant jump in the number of students who qualify—and in the number who are using vouchers without ever trying a public school first.