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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, March 11, 2018 1:00 am

Voucher use rises to record high

$153 million spent to help 35,000 kids go to private schools

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

At a glance

Schools in Allen County that received more than $1 million in state voucher money

Bishop Dwenger High School

$2.03 million

Bishop Luers High School

$1.8 million

Concordia Lutheran High School $1.8 million

Saint Charles Borromeo School

$1.6 million

Horizon Christian Academy III $1.4 million

Blackhawk Christian Elementary School $1.2 million

Saint Jude Elementary School

$1.15 million

Concordia Evangelical Lutheran School $1.05 million

Indiana's school voucher system continues to grow, with the state spending $153 million for the 2017-18 academic year – a record for the program – to help more than 35,000 students attend private schools.

A report on the 7-year-old voucher program – also known as school choice – shows a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year in the number of students taking part. It also shows the cost to Indiana public schools continues to rise.

State numbers mirror data from Allen County, where voucher numbers are up in three of the county's four public school districts.

Allen County has 6,215 voucher students, up from 6,209 last year. The estimated cost to public school districts in the county rose by more than $500,000 to $25.8 million in 2017, according to the report.

Most local voucher students live within the boundaries of Fort Wayne Community Schools, where total enrollment is about 30,000. The report counts 4,711 voucher students in the district this year, an increase of 31 from 2016.

The estimated financial hit to FWCS is more than $20 million, the highest among public schools in Indiana.

Only Indianapolis Public Schools, at $19.7 million, comes close. 

“Indiana continues to create a more uneven playing field for private schools and traditional public schools,” FWCS school board President Julie Hollingsworth said in an email.

The school choice program debuted in 2011, with supporters hailing it as a way for families who meet income guidelines to keep their children out of failing public schools. The program has grown rapidly, with an increasing number of students who never attended a public school receiving vouchers for private education.

Of the 35,458 voucher students in the state in 2017, 56.5 percent never attended a public school, the report says. That is up from 52.4 percent three years ago and 54.6 percent in 2016.

The program was criticized from its inception by officials from public schools who argue vouchers lead to an unbalanced education system in which public money is used to create an arrangement with haves and have-nots.

Kirby Stahly, chief financial officer for East Allen County Schools, said public schools now must compete with private schools – along with other public schools – for students and dollars.

“School districts in today's environment are competing with everyone around them,” he said.

For proponents, the school choice program is about just that: choice.

Parents should simply be able to choose educational opportunities that fit the needs of their children, said Betsy Wiley of the Institute for Quality Education, a pro-school-choice organization in Indianapolis.

State money that would have been used to educate those children should follow the student to whichever school the parents choose, she said.

“We really are supportive of parents choosing the best educational environment for their kids, whichever that might be,” Wiley said.

The more than 35,000 voucher students from 318 Indiana schools represents an increase from 34,299 from 313 schools in 2016-17, according to the state report. The growth is modest compared to previous years.

The program enrolled 3,911 students in its first year, and the state invested about $16 million.

Estimated financial losses for public school districts in the report are based on the number of students living within district boundaries who attend voucher schools.

For Allen County in 2017-18, the state calculated costs for the four public school districts: FWCS, $20.4 million; East Allen, $3.9 million; Southwest Allen County Schools, $721,000; and Northwest Allen County Schools, $801,000.

East Allen has 1,011 voucher students; Southwest Allen has 235; and Northwest Allen has 258, according to the report.

“A good portion of these students would never have come to East Allen,” said Stahly, referring to the number of students who never attended a public school.

Voucher students and the estimated financial hit were lower in 2017-18 for Southwest Allen. Student participation increased in the other districts.

The amount of voucher money increased at most participating voucher schools in Allen County, data show. Eight local private schools each received more than $1 million through the state program.

The highest amount – $2.03 million – went to Bishop Dwenger High School. Bishop Luers and Concordia Lutheran high schools were next on the list with $1.8 million.

Hollingsworth, of FWCS, said money spent on voucher students would equal an extra $150 per student in public schools throughout Indiana.

“Ask any superintendent what he/she could do in his/her district with an extra $150 per student,” she said. “Combine that with the fact that public school funding in Indiana has not kept up with inflation since 2009, it is easy to see that public school districts are being asked to do more with fewer resources.”

mleblanc@jg.net