Three Indiana private schools lose bid to enroll more voucher students

Three private schools lost their bids Wednesday to accept additional students who receive vouchers under Indiana's school choice program, the first test of a new state law granting underperforming schools a second chance at avoiding penalties.

Indiana has one of the nation's largest programs allowing parents to use public funds to send their children to faith-based or independent schools, with more than 34,000 students in 313 schools currently receiving vouchers, according to the state Department of Education. State officials have a formula that grades voucher-accepting schools, and those that perform poorly can face consequences—including a ban on accepting new voucher students until the school improves.

A measure Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law less than two weeks ago allows those schools to appeal their penalties to the state Board of Education. It can grant a one-year waiver to a school that proves the majority of its students "demonstrated academic improvement."

Three schools—Central Christian Academy in Indianapolis, Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne and Turning Point Schools in Lawrence—were the first to request such a waiver allowing them to accept new voucher students and state money. Five of eight board members present voted to back the waiver for all three schools, but six votes were needed for approval.

Messages left for the three schools were not immediately returned.

State statute does not discuss whether schools that were previously denied waivers can resubmit their requests, meaning the schools may be able to return at a later date.

School board members who voted yes argued during discussion that not granting the waiver would eliminate school options for parents to choose from, and that the schools had met the legal requirement of demonstrating student academic improvement. The three that made appeals Wednesday had received failing school grades for three years in a row, prior to the 2015-2016 school year, when all three received an A or B.

"It's important to realize here: every student that would enroll in this school next year, their parents have to make that choice," said B.J. Watts, who voted in favor of the waiver.

Still, others board members voiced hesitation in setting a precedent and wondered whether the board should establish criteria, policy or guidance for schools as to what constituted academic improvement.

During legislative debate on the bill, voucher opponents argued that letting private schools appeal their penalties undercuts the primary rationale for school choice—that it gives students in failing public schools a means of escaping.

"Why not ask to see improvement when they're taking state money for this?" said Sally Sloan, executive director of Indiana's branch of the American Federation of Teachers. "What's wrong with that?"

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, describes the law as being for schools that warrant a second look based on special circumstances, and not a way of escaping accountability. The three schools that pursued the waiver Wednesday "more than merit consideration," he said.

"With some time—seeing the questions the state board asked, knowing where they're coming from—hopefully staff can clarify process and procedures," he said.

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