Ind. school voucher program cheered, criticized, USA Today 8/28/11

posted Dec 7, 2011, 10:25 AM by Bill Duncan
("vouchers offer a stealth subsidy for religious schools and drain critical funds from already cash-poor public schools")


Ind. school voucher program cheered, criticized

By Scott Elliott, The Indianapolis Star
Updated 8/28/2011 11:39 PM


Single mother Heather Coffy faced a tough decision: return her son to a public school where he struggled academically or fall behind on her monthly mortgage payments to keep him and her two other children in private Catholic schools where they were flourishing.

In April, the Indiana Legislature provided another option — vouchers that allow low-and middle-income families to use public funds to help pay private school tuition.

The Indiana school voucher program — the nation's second statewide program — has been a boon to parents such as Coffy and to more than 240 religious schools, most Catholic, now eligible to receive public funds.

But the law, which allows families to redirect money from the school district in which their children reside to private schools, is being contested and sharply criticized by public school officials and the state teachers' union, who contend that vouchers offer a stealth subsidy for religious schools and drain critical funds from already cash-poor public schools.

Opponents have filed a lawsuit alleging it violates the Indiana constitution's required separation of church and state. They say the early numbers bear that out: All but six of the 242 non-public schools so far approved for the voucher program have religious affiliations.

"I think the intent is that the money will be going to religious institutions or private institutions to fund those children's educations, and so that is a voucher program funding religious education," said Teresa Meredith, Indiana State Teachers Association vice president and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said the initial voucher numbers simply reflect the fact that the vast majority of Indiana private schools are religious.

Regardless of the initial result, Bennett said, the intent is not to subsidize religious schools.

"We are subsidizing the education of children," he said, "in the schools where parents want those children to attend."

That's the case with Indianapolis mother Coffy, who is not Catholic. She said the decision to keep her children in Catholic schools was solely about academics — her son was failing in public school before she moved him and her two other children to private Catholic schools. "I really wanted what was best for him," she said.

Before Indiana's voucher program was approved, Coffy said her plan for this school year was to pay only the interest on her mortgage to save enough money to cover tuition.

"I was going to keep my children in private school no matter what," she said. "Now I can pay my full mortgage this month."

Religion was a major factor in Sarah Masquelier's decision to sign up for the voucher program. The Indianapolis woman said she has long wanted a Christian school for her children but could not afford it. Instead, she tried just about everything else in pursuit of a quality education, including a charter school and home-schooling. Vouchers will allow the two oldest of her five children to attend Kingsway Christian School in Avon, an Indianapolis suburb.

"I've always been researching options for schools," she said, "because I never have been very satisfied with the public schools."

Whatever their motivations, families have been flocking to the program since it was launched less than two months ago.

State officials report 3,259 students have enrolled so far, which eclipses the first-year enrollment in Ohio, home of the USA's only other statewide voucher system. Ohio's program attracted 2,713 students its first year in 2007, according to the Ohio Department of Education website.

Indiana's program, which is still accepting applications, also topped first-year enrollment in a similar program in Milwaukee, which introduced a large-scale voucher system in 1991. Milwaukee's program began with just 337 students its first year before growing to more than 19,000 last year, according to the Milwaukee School Choice Program website.

Indiana has a cap of 7,500 vouchers this year and no more than 15,000 next year. The cap will be lifted in 2013 and there will be no limit on the number of students who can obtain vouchers, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

The program is drawing in students from urban centers such as Indianapolis, Fort Wayneand Evansville and rural districts and small towns, data show. Fifteen percent of voucher recipients live in small towns and rural districts.

The financial impact on Indiana Public Schools so far been is relatively small — $2.5 million to $3 million, or about 1% of its $290 million budget. But Superintendent Eugene White said it is one more blow to the financially strapped district.

"It simply means we are going to have to cut our budget another $3 million," White said.