WARSAW — An education-related initiative designed to give students from lower or middle-class households a larger choice of where to learn has several local public school systems feeling a backlash.
Indiana’s Choice Scholarships Program, more commonly referred to as the voucher program, provides money from the state’s education funds to go to private schools in order to help fund tuition for students who would previously not been able to attend such schools due to financial constraints.
The fund in question, Indiana’s Tuition Support fund, doles out money to each public school system based primarily on school enrollment. For officials with area school districts, taking money out of this fund to help subsidize private school tuitions is hitting them where it hurts.
“My first comment as a taxpayer is I am angry that the state of Indiana is sending my tax dollars to voucher schools,” said Steve Clason, superintendent of Whitko Community School Corporation. “We can call them public all we want, but we know they are not the typical school system where you live.”
For Whitko, the damage done by the voucher systems only serves to exacerbate existing issues the school system has with declining enrollment.
“The current voucher program cost Whitko just over $223,000 per year in revenue,” Clason said.
Prior to the 2017-2018 school year, Whitko lost 36 students to the voucher program and experienced a transfer deficit of more than 200 students overall.
For schools such as Winona Lake’s Lakeland Christian Academy, the system is a shot in the arm to needy families who wish to have their children educated in a setting other than public school.
“The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program has been a tremendous blessing to LCA,” said Lakeland Christian Academy Administrator Joe Elrod. “Many families who otherwise could not afford LCA are now able to attend thanks to vouchers. Likewise, those who previously had to sacrifice a great deal now enjoy less of a financial burden. All education is expensive and vouchers provide equal access to various forms of education. Private schools should not be for just the wealthy and elite or the miserly and sacrificial; private education should be assessable to all.”
The voucher system was passed by the state legislature in 2011 under the leadership of then Gov. Mitch Daniels.
For some public school officials, the voucher idea serves to create school systems that receive money from the state but successfully dodge the flip side of the coin — state oversight.
“Most private schools in Indiana are faith-based,” said Brett Boggs, superintendent of Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation. “Our public schools are constantly reminded of the legality of maintaining the separation between church and state. Yet, millions of public tax dollars are being used to support private schools where religion is taught.”
Clason said he feels like private schools that receive vouchers can receive the benefit of state support without the down side.
“The voucher schools need to play by the same rules and have those rules equally enforced regarding their performance,” Clason said. “Recent actions of allowing low performing voucher schools a pass on their accountability grades is just not logical. If we are sending our tax dollars to voucher schools, many of them private, then let’s all play by the same rules.”
Boggs said his school system, like Clason’s felt a financial impact of the program.
“This year, the state of Indiana will send over $150 million to private schools,” Boggs said. “These are taxpayer dollars previously used to fund Indiana’s public schools. For Tippecanoe Valley, that’s a loss of just over $280,000 for the 2017-2018 school year. While our legislators state they are spending more on education than ever, the dollars provided to support students in Indiana’s public schools are diminished. Very simply, the Indiana voucher program hurts Indiana’s public schools.”
Boggs said that while he advocates for the public schools and is concerned about the negative impact this program has on those institutions, he is far from “anti private school.”
“Private, religious schools serve an important purpose,” Boggs said. “Parents who wish for their children to attend such schools have the right to do so. However, I question the legality of public tax dollars being used to provide vouchers ($4,258 per student) for children to attend private schools where religion is taught.”
For Elrod and all LCA Cougars, the program is about giving those with fewer resources a leg up.
“My prayer is that the voucher program continues to provide those who traditionally wouldn’t have the means for a private education the opportunity to make that choice,” Elrod said. “The state requires a certain level of education for each student. it is good to see they are providing the capital for parents to decide which education is best for their child, private or public.”