Shifting enrollment blurs tracking of voucher dollars, 11/9/11

posted Dec 7, 2011, 10:08 AM by Bill Duncan

Last updated: November 9, 2011 2:09 p.m.
Shifting enrollment blurs tracking of voucher dollars

Niki Kelly
The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Hoosier students are playing a variation of musical chairs under Indiana’s new voucher program, but this version has financial implications for the state and Indiana schools.

Last week, the Indiana Department of Education announced 3,919 students received state-paid vouchers to attend private schools under the first year of an expansive program passed by legislators.

But state officials now confirm that 67 of those children, nearly 2 percent, have already left the private or religious schools just a few months into the school year. Some private schools are also experiencing an interesting phenomenon.

The St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Fort Wayne gained 24 students from public schools this year because of vouchers. But they also lost 15 students as parents pulled their kids from the private school – supposedly for one year – to make them eligible for vouchers next year and in the future.Wrapped up in all of this is the difficult task of tracking where the state dollars are going and whether they are being used to educate the child.

“The money should follow the student. That should be our default,” said Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who co-authored the voucher legislation. “We’re learning and will re-examine it next year.”

In April, state lawmakers passed the voucher law. It is the most expansive program in the country because its income guidelines are wide and students from all schools – not just failing schools – are eligible. A family of four, for instance, can make up to $62,000 and still qualify for tuition assistance.

The amount of each voucher depends in part on area funding levels for the public school district and the student’s financial need.

On average, vouchers were worth $4,150 this year. Overall, the vouchers totaled $16.2 million in taxpayer dollars going to largely religious private schools rather than public schools.

All important in the process is count day, Sept. 16, when state officials count students at individual districts. That enrollment figure determines state funding the schools receive.

Stephanie Sample, communications director for the Department of Education, said the voucher money is distributed to the private schools in two installments – October and February.

If the child is expelled or withdraws, the private school must notify the state within five days. So far, 67 voucher students, about 1.7 percent, have left their private schools.

There have been 4,042 exits, about 0.4 percent, from public school in that time.

Sample said if a voucher student leaves the private school, that school must provide the state a refund depending on how long the student was enrolled.

But the Department of Education does not forward the remaining dollars to the school where the student is newly enrolled.

Public schools don’t have a parallel requirement to refund money to the state if a student leaves after count day, Sample said.

“Multiple count days would make this all more simple and efficient,” Sample said of an idea lawmakers are discussing to count students several times during the year instead of once.

Such a change would make it easier for funding to “follow the child.”

Fort Wayne Community Schools reported that since count day it has had 16 students enroll in the district from a private school. East Allen County Schools had 11. It is unclear how many are voucher students.

St. Charles Principal Rob Sordelet said he doesn’t think students are purposely moving after count day, but he said the enrollment count sometimes coincides with the first term ending. So if the student has academic issues, it is an obvious time to move.

He also said that his school – which serves kindergarten through eighth grade – lost 15 students this year because of the voucher program. The law generally requires students attend public school for one year to be eligible for a voucher.

Sordelet said the families that removed their children meet the income guidelines for a voucher and want to be able to use it next year and for the rest of the child’s school career.

Using the average voucher amount, this could save parents up to $40,000.

“It is a tough decision for families, and we had some nice discussions about it,” he said. “You have to do what’s best for your family.”

FWCS Spokeswoman Krista Stockman said having those families exposed to the district creates an opportunity.

“It’s our responsibility to do our best with every child who comes to us,” she said. “People have misconceptions about public school districts. Hopefully they will see our value and stay with us.”

Bosma said legislators this year discussed this theoretic possibility and will have to keep an eye on the phenomenon. Because the state previously was not responsible for education funding in private schools, this swap could put the state on the hook for additional dollars.

“They’ll be in public school for a year, which gives them a great chance to make the sale,” he said. “The best thing is the families have options and they can select the option that is best for their student.”