Statewide school voucher programs across the U.S. are starting to see demand level off, but Indiana's relatively new program has yet to discover its capacity, Indiana University researchers say.
A new brief from IU's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy compared voucher programs in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Louisiana and found that despite increases in the number of vouchers available, enrollment has started to level off and there are more scholarships available than students seeking them.
"They're not all being used," research associate Molly Stewart told The Herald-Times of Bloomington.
Under voucher programs, eligible recipients receive state money to send their children to private schools. Opponents argue the programs funnel public money into private—and often religious—institutions, but supporters say they give families more education choices and promote competition that can improve schools.
Families that receive vouchers must provide transportation for students. Some vouchers only cover a portion of tuition costs.
Stewart said those requirements may be contributing to a drop in interest in the programs.
She noted that Ohio has 60,000 EdChoice scholarships available, but only half are being used.
Indiana's program, which began during the 2011-2012 school year, had caps its first two years. Participation didn't reach the cap either year.
Caps were eliminated in 2013-2014, and enrollment jumped to about 20,000 students. Nearly 30,000 Indiana students are estimated to be using vouchers this school year. Last year, the state spent $81 million on the program.
Stewart said Indiana is "still figuring out where the market is" and that the state might see more shifts in participation than Ohio has.
Indiana awards two scholarships, one for 90 percent of tuition and one for 50 percent, with eligibility depending on income. The maximum income is 370 percent of the federal poverty level. The state also allows students to continue to receive vouchers even if their household income increases above the income cutoff.
Those changes have allowed more middle-class families to receive vouchers in Indiana and elsewhere. Anne-Maree Ruddy, the IU center's director for education policy and senior research associate, said this may seem to contradict some of the original justifications for voucher programs.
"A lot of programs do have origins in low-income ability," she said. "Whether that's counter to their mission is something for the legislatures to decide."
Stewart said it will be interesting to see how changes in the programs affect the political landscape going forward.
"Is the purpose to get out of a bad school and into a good one, or to allow parents to choose?" she said. "Will one be more amenable to taxpayers than the other?"