Sheila Hubert is a single mom, working third shift as an ER nurse to make ends meet with four children living with her at home.
The New Albany resident didn’t think affording Christian Academy of Indiana was an option.
She called and was shocked.
“I can’t describe how floored I was when I first called them and they said the state offered a voucher,” Hubert said.
That voucher program is called Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program. It provides up to 90% of tuition fees in scholarships to families that meet certain guidelines, including financial limits. For the upcoming school year, a family of four can make up to $72,705 to receive a partial scholarship. Families with a special needs student can make even more.
The program has been growing since its inception in 2011, when it was limited to 7,500 students. The following year, it was limited to 15,000. After that, the cap was removed, clearing the way for all who qualified to receive assistance. Last year, 36,290 students around the state utilize vouchers to attend private schools, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Hubert had previously been home-schooling her children. A divorce caused her to move to New Albany, seeking a similar educational offering for her children. If she didn’t have the voucher, she said her life would be much different.
“I probably would have continued to do my best home-schooling them, but I don’t know how successful that would have been with me working night shift,” she said. “(Or) I would have been forced to put them into a school that I don’t agree with.”
Benita Priester’s two children, now 11 and 7 years old, were attending a local public school in Clark County and they weren’t getting the academic results she was seeking. Her family is also using vouchers to attend CAI.
“I can tell a difference in my children’s academics in a dramatic way,” she said. “Just their intellect in talking, writing, reading, the whole nine yards.”
Her husband, Elisha Priester, agreed.
“Whether you come from a low income, middle class or rich, it gives everybody equal opportunity to get the same education a rich person could get. It’s equal,” Elisha said of the voucher program. “The whole program is a blessing in my eyes, because it gives my kids a chance to be around other bright kids, smart kids that they may not have had the chance to be around without the voucher program.”
Darin Long, principal of the middle and high school at CAI, said it is about offering choices to parents.
“(CAI is) definitely not a better option. It’s a different option. The public schools are incredible. You have some good charter schools that have come in,” Long said. “Each child is unique in their abilities, their skills, their talents and what they are looking for. It can be a big school, a small school, the way they are taught. It’s not a better school. It’s being what’s right for that child and that family.”
When the school choice funding first became available in 2011-12 at CAI, Long said only about 2% of students participated. This year, they are up to 37% on a voucher/school choice scholarship and an additional 5% on a tax credit scholarship. Their enrollment increased during that time, too, from 618 in 2009-10, before the vouchers, to 811 now, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Long said things changed overnight when the voucher program was signed into law.
“It just happened so fast,” he said. “It came at us quicker than we planned.”
Long said many families who may not have seen the private school as an option started reaching out, knowing there was financial aid available.
“We’re going to serve families as long as we can with the voucher,” Long said. “It depends on the state Legislature. It can disappear as fast as it came in.”
However, he feels the program will stay, since the numbers prove Hoosiers are participating and taking advantage of the extra assistance.
Benita said she is hopeful this program continues for years to come.
“If I was not able to have this voucher, I wouldn’t be able to send my kids there, for them to have a chance to get a better education,” she said. “We have been truly blessed to have that. There’s just no way we could do it.”