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Officials tout first year of state’s school voucher program as ‘true success story’

After first year, supporters laud school choice reform

– The first year of Indiana’s vast voucher program has ended with few complications, and the popular program is set for even more growth next year.

Already, 4,800 Hoosier students have signed up for vouchers to attend private schools in the fall – up about 800 students from this year. And the deadline to apply is still months away.

“It is a true success story,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said. “Almost 4,000 kids exercised a choice they didn’t previously have.”

And, despite a compressed time period to establish rules for the program last year, it appears to have gone off without any major hitches.

Indiana’s voucher program is considered the most expansive in the country because its income guidelines are wide and students from all schools – not just failing schools – are eligible.

The amount of each voucher depends in part on area funding levels for the public school district and the student’s financial need. On average, vouchers were worth $4,150 this year.

Overall, the vouchers totaled $15.5 million in taxpayer dollars going to largely religious-affiliated private schools rather than public schools.

That is down slightly from numbers released in the beginning of the year because 327 of the original 3,919 voucher students left their selected private schools during the school year.

That is an 8 percent exit rate. In comparison, the most recent data available for the 2010-11 school year showed an 11 percent public school transfer rate.

When voucher students leave, the private schools are required to return the state funding on a pro-rated basis.

Mary Keefer, principal at Bishop Luers High School, said her school gained 58 voucher students and only four or five left during the school year. She said a few decided it wasn’t the right choice for them and the school asked a few students to leave.

“We want kids to feel welcome, but we also won’t lower our standards, so that’s a fine line,” she said. “Overall they really acclimated well, did well in the classroom, were part of the show choir and the honor roll.

“I have no complaints or concerns.”

Private schools are allowed to have their own admission standards, such as minimum grades, religious-based requirements and codes of conduct.

But there remains a philosophical divide on vouchers in general, as opponents argue the state shouldn’t send taxpayer dollars to religious-based institutions. And public schools lament the funding being lost when the student leaves.

Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the district lost the most students of any district in the state to the voucher program – almost 400.

She said that’s partly because the total private school enrollment in the FWCS district is higher than anywhere in the state at more than 9,000 students.

“As I see this thing growing, one of the difficulties is planning. I have no idea what to assume to adjust teacher allocations. I don’t know they’re not coming back until they don’t come back,” Friend said.

The only other logistical concern is an issue with private schools seeking transcripts from FWCS before enrollment to determine whether they want to accept the students. District officials refused to grant those pre-enrollment requests unless the parents made the requests.

Bennett said this kind of wall between the public and private schools that are competing for the same students is the only element he wishes could improve.

“Once that parent and child has made the decision, both sides should do everything possible to make sure they get the best education,” Bennett said. “This is not a tweak we control, but a culture that needs to be developed.”

Bill Hartman, lead administrator at Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, said his school this year accepted 42 voucher students and next year expects that to grow to 80 or 85.

He said many of these students would have eventually joined Blackhawk – perhaps when high school started – but the existence of vouchers has allowed parents to speed up the process and get their children in private school earlier.

Julie Nieveen, a Warsaw mother who used a voucher this year for her 13-year-old daughter Ellie, said all her other children had gone to public elementary and then Lakeland Christian Academy for middle and high school.

This year, they received a voucher for $4,200 for Ellie’s seventh-grade year. Overall, the savings the family could obtain for the rest of Ellie’s K-12 career could reach $25,000.

“We like the size of it and the Christian values that are taught. She has Christian friends and parents and teachers that all really want the same things for her that we do,” Nieveen said.

Lindsey Brown, executive director of School Choice Indiana, called it a very successful first year in terms of the number of families participating and the compelling stories surrounding the new opportunity. She said her organization will push lawmakers to open up the program to kindergartners.

For now, students must at least try one year in public schools before moving to private schools.

“Our priority is increasing access,” Brown said.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he expects several lawmakers to file legislation removing the income limits on the program, though he doesn’t think there are enough votes to pass it.

“Overall as a general public I think the voucher program is being accepted fairly well,” he said. “The teachers and school administrators and school boards still by and large don’t like it, but I think they are becoming more accepting of it and realizing it’s part of today’s reality.”