INDIANAPOLIS — Thousands more Indiana kids could take advantage of a state-paid private school education under a voucher program that legislators expanded this year.
Applications are still being accepted by the Indiana Department of Education for the school year that starts about a month from now for many students.
It is the third year for the voucher program, which more than doubled in size in 2012.
New data also show that hundreds of the students who took a voucher last year left the private school before the end of the year. While the overall rate of 6 percent isn’t worrisome to officials, some schools have much higher exit rates.
“It’s a choice,” said Betsy Wiley, president of School Choice Indiana. “They tried something they thought would be the best educational environment for their child and for whatever reason it wasn’t the right fit.”
Indiana vouchers are available to students meeting financial guidelines. For instance, a family of four with an income up to $65,300 would be eligible for a voucher worth 50 percent of the state tuition amount. If the same family made less than $43,500 that grant would rise to 90 percent.
The average voucher amount has been more than $4,000.
About 3,900 students signed on the first year with participation rising to 9,324 last year. But 559 of those students left.
Private schools must report departures to the state and include an exit code. Voucher dollars also must be returned to the state on a pro-rata basis depending how long the student stayed.
The vast majority of the exits, according to the Indiana Department of Education, were simply marked as transferred. Twenty children were expelled; 42 were removed by parents and home-schooled. A few were kicked out because of interpersonal problems, truancy or incorrigibility – being unruly or uncontrollable.
“Most choice scholarships are used in urban centers and you have significant mobility in urban schools as well,” said Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, chairman of the House Education Committee. “We need to look at schools with high turnover rates just like in any other school situation.”
Cornerstone College Prep School in Fort Wayne had the largest number of departures in the state during the school year at 20. That equaled about 17 percent of their voucher students.
The reasons given were three expulsions, four cases of incorrigibility, two kids removed to be home-schooled and 11 transfers.
Multiple calls, emails and messages to Cornerstone were not returned.
Another Fort Wayne private school – Holy Cross Lutheran School – also had a high number of exits with 11 of 38 voucher students leaving, or about 29 percent. Nine transferred and two were home-schooled.
Officials at Holy Cross also didn’t return calls seeking comment.
A principal at another school with a high exit rate did respond, saying about half of those who left were related to behavior issues.
Anita Peters, principal at Queen of All Saints in Michigan City, said the other students who transferred were largely related to individualized education programs. These plans are given to students needing special education assistance or services.
She said parents didn’t inform the school during the application process that their child had an individualized education plan. Instead it came out only weeks or months later when the child was falling behind in class.
Peters said Queen of All Saints can handle some special accommodations, such as allowing students extra test time or having to read a test to a student. But she said the school doesn’t have the staff to provide one-on-one learning and “that gap was difficult for us to fill.”
A new school resource officer has been added for this coming school year to address some of these issues, Peters said.
She also said this year about 10 of her current students are now eligible for vouchers.
That’s because earlier this year lawmakers softened a requirement that kids first go to public school for one year before receiving a voucher. Now the one-year waiting period doesn’t exist for siblings of a child with a voucher or those who would otherwise attend an F-rated public school.
“It helps families that for so many years have sacrificed so much,” Peters said.
There are currently 148 F-rated schools in the state, or about 7 percent. The new change in law means students already in private school in those boundary lines can now receive a state-paid voucher for education instead of having their parents pay solely for the tuition.
Wiley predicts most of the increase in the program this year will be from this new provision, as opposed to the larger-scale exodus from public to private schools in the last two years.
“The largest migration is over,” she said. “We’ve had the voucher program for two years and we are starting to see that choice has provided competition and forced everyone to up their game,” she said.
Wiley thinks the program will grow to include 14,000 or 15,000 students this year.
Behning doesn’t necessarily agree, saying there are still parents out there who aren’t even aware of the option.
He doesn’t believe Indiana is at the saturation point but said capacity might be an issue soon. When lawmakers first passed the program in 2011, there were about 22,000 available spots in Indiana’s private schools.
Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the district has only one F-rated school, Harrison Hill Elementary School, and doesn’t expect much change in that part of the law.
But it has been hit hard by the law with more than 1,100 students from within the district’s boundaries using vouchers.
FWCS is fighting back, though.
The district has ramped up a public relations campaign, including assigning two part-time employees to attend festivals, park programs and other youth events to tout FWCS and register students.
In addition, television commercials and billboards have been up, with a door-to-door campaign planned the end of the month. The marketing expense so far this year is about $60,000.