Cover Story

School choice surge

"School choice surge" Continued...

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

Enrollment at Indiana's Catholic schools had slipped over the course of a decade by several thousand students until last year, when-according to a Wall Street Journal analysis-Catholic school enrollment across the state jumped 2 percent. Another bump is likely this fall, as more parents are aware of voucher availability. As early as June, 5,000 students had already applied for Indiana vouchers, surpassing last year's total program participation.

Indiana's GOP-dominated legislature last year made the "Choice Scholarship" law the largest first-year voucher program in the nation with nearly 4,000 vouchers awarded. The vouchers aren't for just anybody, though: Children from high-income families may not receive them, and those who already attend private schools are ineligible. Kindergartners are also ineligible-voucher participants must have attended a public school for at least one year.

Most conservative legislators in Indiana voted for the voucher program, although a few were concerned it could pave the way for the state to regulate private schools, said Rep. Timothy Wesco, whose district includes portions of Elkhart. Wesco supports vouchers but shares long-term concerns: "I think eventually the schools are going to depend on that voucher money."

The average Indiana voucher was worth $4,150 last year. Since Indiana normally spends around $11,000 to educate a public-school student, the program saved the state millions of dollars. State officials returned $4.2 million in savings to public schools. Even so, critics of the program argue that it steals money from public-school coffers, resulting in layoffs.

"The money doesn't belong to public schools," snaps Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Bennett, when he hears those complaints. The state's responsibility is to "fund the education of children, wherever they go," in an effort to supply the best education possible. Bennett, a Catholic school graduate, told me Indiana's voucher law wasn't intended to reverse Catholic school enrollment decline. But if those vouchers have enabled students to "leave public schools that didn't meet their needs, and go to private schools or Catholic schools that meet [them], I'm pretty agnostic about that."

If Bennett is agnostic, the Indiana State Teachers Association is devout: It has sued the state. In a case before the Indiana Supreme Court, the teachers union claims the vouchers violate the state's constitution, which, as in many other states, prohibits tax dollars from supporting religion. (Ten years ago the U.S. Supreme Court declared vouchers constitutionally valid.)

Local constitutional challenge is routine for school choice programs. In Oklahoma in March, a Tulsa County district judge struck down a voucher program created for special-needs students, saying it amounted to state support of religious institutions. Oklahoma's Supreme Court is hearing that case.

This fall, with over 5,000 vouchers worth up to $8,800 apiece available for low- and middle-income families hoping to escape failing schools, Louisiana is on track to outpace Indiana's first-year enrollment record. (The state's preeminent teachers union has, of course, taken the Louisiana board of education to court.)

About 120 private and Christian schools in the Bayou State scurried this summer to make room for new students and get the word out to parents. Old Bethel Christian Academy in Clarks had 59 seats available for voucher students and spent about $400 advertising them in local newspapers. According to Lynette Weeks, a school secretary, Old Bethel had only received about 20 voucher applications in time for a June 29 deadline, perhaps indicating parental apathy or misinformation. Some other Christian schools in Louisiana had made 100 or more seats available, hoping to boost enrollment.

Ten states offer vouchers of various kinds, and so does the District of Columbia. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, wants more: Romney's education reform plan, released in May, proposes expanding charter schools and making the D.C. program a "model for the nation." Romney promised, if elected, to "expand parental choice in an unprecedented way."

State-financed vouchers aren't the only door into private schools: Louisiana, Indiana, and nine other states have enacted "scholarship tax credit" programs, where individuals or corporations get a tax break if they fund student scholarships. In late June New Hampshire established such a scholarship program when the Republican-led legislature overrode a veto from Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.

Overall, 19 states passed various school choice laws during the 2011/2012 state legislative sessions, according to the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group. By expanding programs or creating new ones, lawmakers across the United States have tripled the available funding for vouchers and tax credit scholarships during the past five school years.

Adam Emerson, a school choice expert at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says the 2010 elections gave Republicans the edge they needed in many statehouses to vote up school choice policies. At the same time, some Democrats, for whom school choice has traditionally been a taboo subject, began throwing in their support, risking the ire of teachers unions. They may have realized that vouchers and scholarships are especially beneficial to disadvantaged kids disproportionately represented among a major Democratic constituency: minorities.


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