A key rationale for Indiana’s fast-growing private school voucher program when it launched in 2011 was that children in low-scoring, high-poverty school districts need more education options. And that seems to be the case, as the overwhelming number of vouchers are being used in those districts.
But data for the program also shows growing popularity for the vouchers in wealthier, high-scoring school districts.
Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern — two of the state’s more affluent districts — both saw strong jumps in the number of children who live in those communities using publicly-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition.
Data released by the Indiana Department of Education this week showed the number of students using vouchers jumped nearly 50 percent statewide during the last year. Indiana narrowly fell behind Wisconsin for having the largest program in the nation.
In Carmel, the number more than doubled to 84 this year from 40 last year. Even more students in Hamilton Southeastern are using vouchers this year: 214, a 79-percent jump, from 119 last year.
The beneficiaries among Hamilton County private schools include Guerin Catholic High School, which has 43 students using vouchers, and a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Cicero, Indiana Academy, with 61 students. Both schools saw big gains over last year, when Guerin only enrolled 16 students using vouchers and Indiana Academy had 18.
To be sure, most children using vouchers still live in the state’s largest, poorest cities with some of the most troubled public schools. Fort Wayne, the second largest Indiana school district, had the most voucher users, with more than 4,000 in 2014-15, up nearly 45 percent from the previous year.
Indianapolis Public Schools, Indiana’s largest school district, was next on the list, with about 3,000 children using vouchers, up about 13 percent from last year. The next biggest districts for voucher use are also in bigger cities: South Bend, Anderson Community Schools and Gary Community Schools.
But some surprising districts are seeing more widespread voucher use. Seymour, a small city in rural Southern Indiana, has 131 children using vouchers this year, up nearly 200 percent.
Indiana’s voucher program is the nation’s second largest and fastest-growing, driven by less restrictions on who can obtain one. Unlike other states with large voucher programs, Indiana does not limit them to families only living near low-rated schools or who have special needs. And the income limits for Indiana are more generous than other states, allowing middle class families to participate.
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. Families can continue to receive vouchers once they are in the program even if their incomes grow beyond those limits.
Per-student state aid varies by district. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, aid 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.
The prime beneficiary of the voucher program has been Indiana’s Catholic schools, but other private and religious schools have seen voucher use expand. In all, nearly 315 private schools accept vouchers in Indiana.
The schools with the highest enrollments of students using vouchers in the state are Bishop Dwenger High School and Saint Charles Borromeo School, both in Allen County. They each enrolled about 350 students using vouchers.
In Marion County, 60 schools accept vouchers. The schools with the highest voucher enrollments in Marion County are Cardinal Ritter, a Catholic High School, and MTI School of Knowledge, with a focus on Islamic studies, both enrolling about 250 voucher students.