It wasn't until the late 1980s, when a group of parents sued, that Fort Wayne desegregated its public elementary schools.
At the time, even decades after Brown v. Board of Education made state-sanctioned school segregation illegal, black and white children were mostly siloed into their own schools in the city's largest district. White children received the bulk of the community's resources, while black students got what was left.
Years later, Fort Wayne Community Schools has become a rare bright spot in a country that has largely turned its back on desegregation. The community has been generally supportive too, and unlike in other areas attempting to desegregate, white families never fled the area in droves.
But community stakeholders question whether the state's school voucher program, adopted in 2011, is working to undo some of these achievements.
The program, which uses public funding to help students afford private schools, is supposed to provide low-income children the same access to educational opportunities as their affluent peers.
Local and national critics of the program say they worry that it actually allows middle-class students to escape their diverse public schools in favor of more homogeneous private schools.
In Indiana, where the median household income is $49,255, the income-eligibility requirement is liberal compared to other state programs. A family of four that makes up to $91,020 is eligible to receive a partial publicly funded scholarship, for instance. This means wealthier white families can take advantage of scholarships, potentially allowing for self-segregation, says Halley Potter, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public policy research group.
These fears did not arise in a vacuum. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed to the racial history of voucher programs as a warning sign. On the heels of Brown v. Board of Education, some officials closed their public schools to avoid admitting students of color. Instead, private school tuition grants were provided to white students to attend their own, separate academies.
In order to see whether voucher schools in Fort Wayne could be facilitating a more modern form of white flight, HuffPost examined demographic data for public and private schools between 2011 and 2017, collected by the Indiana Department of Education.
Of the 27 – out of 28 – private schools for which we had data, only four increased their enrollment of white students over that time. Overall, private schools in Fort Wayne went from 84 percent white in 2011 to 74 percent white in 2017. Public schools went from 58 percent white to 55 percent white.
These numbers suggest that widespread white flight did not occur over the same time vouchers went into effect. But critics in Fort Wayne say there are more subtle forms of segregation. The voucher system, according to teachers and advocates involved with FWCS, has created a two-tiered system consisting of the haves and have nots.
Wendy Robinson, FWCS superintendent, says she has witnessed local private schools actively working to recruit the best and brightest students away from public schools.
“(They're) going after the kids who are the best football players, going after the kids who can help you get state in show choir, going after the speech kids,” said Robinson, whose district boasts a nearly 90 percent graduation rate, higher than the state average. “It's almost like college athletic recruiting, that is almost what this has turned into.”
Robinson describes receiving elaborate gift baskets with balloons from a local private school for some of her students as a recruiting tactic. She also notes that as the income eligibility requirements for voucher schools have broadened, the program no longer targets only the poorest students.
“Vouchers have changed the complexities of parochial schools because now you're chasing the dollar so you have more diversity. But the voucher doesn't cover all the expenses in a private school,” Robinson said. “I think racial diversity may be something people focus on, the financial diversity is where this is coming down. It has created haves and have nots.”
Private schools also do not have to provide the same services for students with special needs as public schools, leaving public institutions with the responsibility of serving some of the hardest to reach students, notes Robinson.
Mark GiaQuinta, an attorney and former president of the FWCS board, echoes these beliefs.
“Unfortunately, my belief is that parochial schools are using young adults of color to bolster their athletics. Then they boast about the fact that they're integrating their schools, but to what extent?” GiaQuinta said.
Robert Enlow, president of the education choice group Ed Choice, disagrees. He said there is no available data to support such anecdotes. GiaQuinta and Enlow both said they wish such data was collected, although they diverge on what they think such a study would show.
To discredit claims that these private schools are cherry-picking students, Enlow points to the early results of a study from Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky. The study, currently in the peer-review process, shows students on vouchers initially experience dips in math scores, but catch up to their public school peers after four years.
“If the private schools were recruiting the best students, then you would not see a drop off in the test scores,” Enlow said.
Robinson says she does not know if she'll live to see the end of Indiana's voucher program, but will continue fighting for the thousands of kids who remain in her district.
With vouchers, she says, “It's not just desegregation – it's economic, it's social, it's all kinds of levels, we are using public dollars to have boutique schools.”
About this series
The Journal Gazette teamed up with HuffPost for an in-depth look at the School Choice Program, commonly referred to as vouchers.
Stories by Journal Gazette reporters Niki Kelly, Ashley Sloboda and Rosa Salter Rodriguez and HuffPost reporter Rebecca Klein examine how the initial concept in Indiana expanded, the faith-based curriculum some schools use, whether vouchers are affecting the demographics of schools and where students with special educational needs attend, and effect on home school enrollment. We also profile two Fort Wayne schools and share the stories of students.
An interactive online map allows you to click on Allen County schools to discover their demographics and other information.
You can find the stories athttp://www.journalgazette.net/news/local/schools/vouchers