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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Esther Johnson teaches a kindergarten class at Lutheran South Unity School. Private schools are getting crowded.

Legislators mull voucher expansions

Consider funds for buildings as schools run out of room

– When lawmakers created Indiana’s voucher program in 2011, a survey showed there were about 22,000 open seats in private schools around the state.

Since then, the program has doubled in enrollment each year – bringing the number of vouchers this year to 19,809 at a state cost of about $81 million in private school tuition.

And with another application period underway, some private schools are running out of space.

“We have been fortunate for a long time that we have had good, full classes. But now kindergarten through sixth is full. So is seventh and eighth. We keep a waiting list, but people tend to just choose another school,” said Linda Pearson, lead administrator at Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne.

Blackhawk has two buildings – an elementary and middle/high school with a full enrollment of 867, including preschool. Of those, more than 200 are students receiving state-paid vouchers.

“Could we expand in the future? Possibly,” Pearson said. “Even before vouchers we talked about adding a class or two in elementary.”

Blackhawk isn’t the only school nearing capacity.

And that could leave lawmakers with a new question – do they provide funding for capital additions? Right now the voucher covers salaries and operational expenses but not renovations or building construction.

Public schools get operating funds from state coffers but rely on property taxes for capital needs.

“Is the voucher amount enough, and are we able to overcome the facilities challenge? Those are the big questions as we go forward,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “We want an equal playing field. We have to have that conversation about facilities and voucher amount.”

Legislators raised the maximum voucher amount for grades one through eight from $4,500 to $4,800 for each student who qualifies. For higher grades the amount depends on family income and the per-pupil funding amount in the home school corporation.

With the Indiana General Assembly heading into a budget session, the possibility of raising the amount will inevitably be broached.

“There is a general consensus that there will be schools interested in expanding soon. They will have to start making that decision in the next few years,” said Tosha Salyers, spokeswoman for the Institute for Quality Education, formerly School Choice Indiana.

“The way we talk about it is more equitable funding across the board,” she said.

Enlow said other states haven’t ventured to the capital side of the equation, but with Indiana’s program growing so fast, it might be necessary to have the discussion.

He also noted private schools don’t get local or federal dollars that traditional public schools do.

“It’s a legitimate question to ask,” he said, noting the state could set up a grant program or simply add to the base level of the voucher.

His group – along with several others in the state – is in the midst of a new survey on capacity.

So far about 200 private schools have self-reported about 13,000 open seats. These are early estimates because there are more than 900 private schools in the state. Just over 300 private schools accept vouchers.

The full study will come out in May.

Enlow said part of that analysis will look at whether schools have already expanded or plan to in the near future.

Pearson said about half of Blackhawk’s voucher kids are new to the private school system, while others were already attending the school and shifted over to a voucher through pathways the legislature set up.

Krista Nagy, lead administrator of Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne, said the vouchers break down similarly at her school.

Of the current 200 enrollment at the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, about 125 are voucher kids with a split between new and existing families.

“We have the ability to expand a bit, and we are weighing that against other needs,” she said.

Nagy said two classrooms can be added through a simple reconfiguration that would affect class sizes, but modular classrooms would need to be added to reach an enrollment of 250 to 260.

Or there is an option to partner with other organizations in the area offering additional space.

Nagy noted the voucher doesn’t cover the full cost of education, and the school still provides grants and subsidies to some families.

As for capital costs, she said “I would never expect the state to get involved. It would be something we would do internal fundraising for. It’s a local issue.”

Pearson and others agreed with that sentiment.

“Absolutely not,” said Sean McBride, spokesman for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

He said a great majority of the schools are not at capacity now, and “there are currently zero plans in the works in the diocesan Catholic school system to expand existing school facilities due to an overabundance of new students, specifically due to the Choice Scholarship program.”

House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said he expects strong voucher advocates to push for more funding but has heard nothing specific about capital costs.

“We will have to consider the whole picture,” he said. “Lots of people in the House and Senate would likely be reluctant to take that next step. Private schools have the ability to spread some costs in other ways.”