TIPPECANOE CO., Ind. (WLFI) – It’s an education program upon which Indiana will spend about $80 million this year.
It’s money that some parents say gives them the freedom to choose what’s best for their child. It’s money that some school officials say is the choice by state lawmakers to defund public schools.
The argument is one of the most hotly debated pieces of Indiana’s educational reform.
As Mrs. Plantenga reviews spelling words with her second graders, her classroom looks like any other.
But a closer look shows otherwise. Across the room from the American flag is the Christian flag and a stack of a dozen Bibles on the bookshelf showing it’s not a public school classroom, but one at Lafayette Christian School.
Still, thanks to Indiana’s School Choice voucher program, Sophie Elliott is one of 68 students here who gets thousands of dollars from taxpayers to attend.
“The choice is freedom and that’s what you want as a parent, the freedom to choose for your child what is best,” said Sophie’s mother Katrina.
Katrina says what’s best for Sophie and little brother Oliver in kindergarten is Lafayette Christian. Even though Katrina herself used to be a math teacher in the public schools.
“As a public school teacher, I think that all funds should go to the public school. But when my own child was involved and I see there’s a face to that and this is not a good fit, then it totally changes the picture,” said Katrina.
With an enrollment of approximately 350, one in five students at Lafayette Christian receive a voucher.
For families who qualify for 100 percent of the federal free or reduced lunch program like the Elliotts, Indiana will pay a maximum of 90 percent of tuition. For a family of four, that’s income up to $43,568.
For families whose income is 150 percent of the poverty line, the state will pay a maximum of 50 percent of tuition. For that same family of four, that is a maximum income of $65,352.
The value of a voucher is calculated in three ways, with the smallest amount of money awarded to the student, at either the appropriate 90 percent of 50 percent level based on income levels:
- Tuition and fees charged to the student by the school
- $4,700 for grades 1-8
- An amount calculated by the per-student state funding
“It’s really helping families have a choice. Parents know the best about their kids and what kind of education they want and the best fit for a school,” said Lafayette Christian School Principal Ken Goff.
The 261 voucher students from the Lafayette School Corporation in 2013-2014 are more than double the amount for any other district in a 13-county area and constitutes the 16th highest district in the state.
In some ways, missing voucher students do not affect the immediate financial picture for public schools. For example, corporations don’t have to spend money on classrooms and teachers due to smaller enrollment figures and because of voucher students never attended. However, missing voucher students means that few fewer public school students pay for various overhead costs like the salaries of administrators and utility bills.
LSC Superintendent Les Huddle is one of many who believe that the state should not be in the business of vouchers.
“I’m going to give you my personal opinion, my response would be no,” said Huddle. “It comes down to public tax dollars going towards private education.”
However, Goff disagrees.
“If they are not at that school, why is that money needed at that school? It should follow the student,” Goff said.
West Lafayette Superintendent Rocky Killion believes that state lawmakers have an agenda by starting the voucher program.
“I really think it’s a political decision to somewhat defund public schools,” said Killion.
Still, he is not entirely against vouchers.
“I’m not opposed to choice,” said Killion. “I think every child should have a choice, I think every parent should have a choice. I’m not opposed to that. I’m opposed to the mechanism we’re using to fund the voucher movement.”
Here’s how the mechanism works. All of Indiana’s education money is put into a pot. The voucher program is taken off the top of the funding. Last year, that amount was $36 million. Then, the rest of the money, more than $6 billion goes to public schools.
So far, public schools have benefited because it’s cheaper for the state to pay for a child’s voucher, than it is to pay for a year of public school. But there’s less money for public schools as the voucher program continues to more than double in size every year – from 3,911 voucher students in 2011-2012 to 9,129 students in 2012-2013 to 19,809 students this year, increases of 134 percent and 117 percent respectively.
Last year, Indiana distributed $4.9 million of savings to public schools based on their size. Last year’s check to LSC was $35,851.64. Tippecanoe School Corporation got the largest check at $55,770.79. West Lafayette received $9,192.40.
But there’s a catch.
With more students than ever receiving vouchers, including thousands who would have attended private school even without a voucher, the years of a voucher program creating surplus money for public schools may soon be over. It could happen perhaps even this year.
Don’t tell that to Killion who says West Lafayette has lost $900,000 of state funding annually since 2011.
“If someone can tell me why we’re losing funding, I’d be very interested in knowing the real reason,” said Killion.
Last year, the General Assembly expanded some income requirements.
Now families who make up to 200 percent of the free and reduced lunch program can still get a voucher, as long as their child was a voucher student last year or a special education student. For a family of four, that’s an income of $87,135. Of the state’s 19,809 voucher students, just 492 are in the 200 percent expanded income bracket, just under 2.5 percent.
Huddle and Killion both believe that income cut-off is too high.
“Vouchers were sold on low income and poverty level, but with 200 percent above the poverty level, I’m not sure if that was the original intent,” said Huddle.
Regardless of intent, for the Elliotts where both parents work jobs in the non-profit sector, the 90 percent scholarship has provided freedom. If not for a voucher, Katrina thinks home school was the next best option. It wasn’t one she wanted to choose for her outgoing daughter.
“Regardless of the professions they choose and regardless of how much income they have from their professions, they still should have a right to choose what school their kids go to,” said Katrina.
According to the Indiana Department of Education, 75 percent of voucher students are at or below the poverty line and qualify for the 90 percent voucher. That’s down from 85 percent when the program began two years ago.
Here’s a breakdown of the numbers of voucher students at area private schools:
- St. James Lutheran School – 36 of 138 students in grades 1-8 receive a voucher (26.1%). Tuition is $3,400 for the first child, $1,600 for every additional child.
- Lafayette Christian School – 68 of 344 in K-8 students receive a voucher (19.8%). Tuition is $4,896.
- Faith Christian School – 106 of 566 students receive a voucher (18.7%). Tuition is $4,548 for elementary, $4,944 for high school.
- The four schools of the Lafayette Catholic School system does not provide individual enrollment numbers. Overall Central Catholic Junior-Senior High School (51 voucher students), St. Boniface School (38 voucher students), St. Lawrence Elementary School (48 voucher students), and St. Mary Cathedral School (68 voucher students) combine to 205 voucher students of an overall population of 922 students (22.2%). Tuition is $4,399 for K-6, $5,204 for grades 7-8, and $7,118 for grades 9-12.
See the attached spreadsheet for a full breakdown of voucher students and dollar figures at each of the schools in the last three years, as well as how much money was paid to voucher students.