In unusual move, International School joins Indiana’s voucher program

A highly regarded Indianapolis private school will join Indiana’s growing voucher program this fall.

The International School will be a rare example of a secular school accepting state money to help families pay high school tuition.

As Chalkbeat reported in May, just seven of the 313 schools that participated in the program last year were secular. And few elite schools accepted vouchers, which don’t go very far toward paying tuition bills that can be close to $20,000 per year.

The International School offers the International Baccalaureate program and language immersion in Spanish, French and Mandarin. Founded in 1994, the school is popular among affluent foreign parents who come to Indianapolis for work, and it has students and staff representing more than 40 nationalities.

The school joined the voucher program this year in part to signal the school’s support for economic diversity, said upper school admissions director Natalie Wolfe.

“We value diversity, and diversity isn’t always the color of our skin,” she said. “This is just one other avenue … to help us open the doors to some students who may have not had us on their radar before.”

The school is going slowly, however. Although it serves students from preschool through 12th grade, in this first year, just the high school will participate. Elementary and middle school students won’t be able to use state scholarships.

Because only the high school is accepting vouchers, the administration is largely sidestepping one of the most contentious pieces of the voucher program: the requirement that students take state tests. High schoolers will take a state exam, but elementary and middle students won’t have to take the state ISTEP test.

Some advocates worry that forcing private schools to administer state tests discourages them from joining the program, but Wolfe said that wasn’t a factor for the International School.

“We’re not concerned about ISTEP,” she said. “But we just want to test the waters.”

Even with the help of vouchers, the school may still be out of reach for families. Because tuition at the high school is $19,550 per year, state vouchers, which average about $4,258, will only pay a fraction of the cost. The school offers financial aid, but Wolfe said that scholarships are limited because it has a relatively small endowment.

It’s unclear how many families at the school will qualify for the state program. In order to be eligible for any state aid, a family of four must have an income below $89,910. The most common proxy for whether schools serve low-income children is the number of students who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals. But the International School does not have records because it does not participate in the federal program.

But Wolfe hopes that joining the voucher program will help attract families by showing them there is financial help.

“We don’t want to seem we have any barriers,” she said. “We don’t want for a financial barrier to keep people from looking at this as an option.”

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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