Indiana school’s $500 recruitment deal reignites voucher oversight debate

A small but growing private school in Noblesville was offering a deal to its families: Get a friend to enroll at Legacy Christian School and you’ll get $500 off your tuition.

The lure to attract new students seemed innocuous, except that about 28% of Legacy Christian’s students receive publicly funded vouchers to subsidize their tuition. With that state money comes strings—including a state law that bans publicly funded schools from offering financial incentives for students to enroll.

Last month, the school rescinded the discount after a public school advocate blasted Legacy Christian on social media for potentially running afoul of the law.

In a letter sent to the Indiana Department of Education on June 13, the school board said it introduced the referral policy before the school began accepting vouchers in 2013, a time when doing so would not have conflicted with state law.

“We apologize for the oversight and appreciate those who brought this issue to our attention so that we could take appropriate actions,” wrote Bradford Elliott, chair of the Legacy Christian school board.

Legacy Christian declined further comment, so a spokesperson did not say if the referral incentive was used or how much was awarded. The incident raises questions over who’s responsible for ensuring private schools that receive vouchers comply with state laws, reigniting a wider conversation about how much control the state should have over the public money that private schools receive and what recruitment efforts they’re using.

When private schools decide to accept voucher money, they sign a document with the state education department affirming they will comply with state laws and reporting procedures. But the state only charts the money it doles out to private schools—it doesn’t keep tabs on how the school chooses to spend its own money, so it can’t always determine if those choices are lawful.

“When a private school chooses to accept choice vouchers, it brings more oversight,” said Adam Baker, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “But all of their books aren’t open to us. It’s possible we would have never known about this.”

State leaders have dealt with challenges in the voucher program that indicated they may not have enough oversight. In 2014, several private and religious schools returned $3.9 million they had accrued in extra voucher money after three years of “tuition miscalculations that some said resulted from the schools’ inability to follow complex guidelines in the law. The news broke when several schools began self-reporting discrepancies to the state.

But voucher supporters say it’s important for private schools to remain independent so they can preserve control over their curriculums, particularly at religious schools like Legacy Christian.

The program’s growth is also what spurred lawmakers to enact the law that led Legacy Christian to rescind its referral policy. As school choices grew in variety and number for parents, some advocates worried about the aggressive recruitment efforts spurring parent decisions, too.

In 2015, policymakers enacted a law to ban the practice among all Indiana schools that receive public money after Chalkbeat reported that an Indianapolis charter school was giving out Marsh gift cards to families who brought in new students. At the time, critics asked whether such rewards impede a family’s ability to make rational choices about their students’ education.

And the 2015 discussion fueled a larger debate about how far schools should be allowed to go when recruiting students. Some critics, for example, questioned Indianapolis Public Schools’ spending on public billboards to market their schools across the city.

The law applies to all schools that receive state dollars, including traditional public schools and charter schools. Like the state’s lack of recorded violations among private schools, the leaders behind the state’s three main charter authorizers—the Indiana Charter School Board, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office, and Ball State University—say they’ve heard no complaints about their schools acting against the law.

But the mayor’s office said they want to watch the finances of the schools in their network more closely to be sure. In August, for example, the office plans to ask its schools to provide an itemized report explaining exactly how they’re spending money on marketing and recruitment efforts.

Legacy Christian School opened in 2000. It has since expanded to 242 students spanning preschool through 12th grade. And in the last academic year, it received more than $293,700 in voucher money—a relatively small amount compared with other private schools benefiting from the state voucher program. Some of the largest schools received more than $1 million in the same year.

But Jennifer Robinson, chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education in Monroe County, said every dollar counts. That’s why she researches schools like Legacy Christian and, in this case, chose to call the school out on Twitter in early June.

“What would it be like if a public school did something like this?” Robinson said. “It wouldn’t be tolerated.”

Suzanne Eckes, a researcher at Indiana University’s School of Education in Bloomington, said the law governing the referral discounts “very well may be unenforceable,” noting “there are plenty of laws out there that don’t have any bite.”’ She also said a lack of legal training among school administrators isn’t uncommon, and that private school leaders aren’t bound by the same standards and certifications that public school administrators face.

As executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, John Elcesser is often on the front lines in the effort to equip private schools with the knowledge they need to comply with state law. More than 400 of Indiana’s private schools are members of his organization and, in general, Elcesser said about 90% of schools who benefit from choice scholarships are in the group.

He noted in a phone call that Legacy Christian School is not a member of the association. And while he said he believes the school’s referral policy wasn’t malicious and that its leaders responded appropriately by dismantling it, he noted it’s one example of how schools that fail to comply can harm the reputation of others.

“We can’t judge a law as effective based on periodic errors. It’s about how people deal with it,” Elcesser said. “This was a rare circumstance and the school fixed it. That’s what’s most important.”

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

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