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11/8/2017 9:35:00 AM
Voucher debate continues: School choice, standards, accountability all come into play

Sue Loughlin, Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Jennifer Madison wasn’t unhappy with her son’s traditional public school, but when she learned her son qualified for a state-funded voucher, she jumped at the chance to send him to St. Patrick’s School in Terre Haute.

Both her son Hoyt, a second-grader, and daughter Ruby, who is in kindergarten, attend the parochial school.

Her son previously attended Sugar Creek Consolidated and “we loved that school. There were no problems. It has a loving and caring staff,” she said. But the family attends St. Patrick’s Church, and they wanted their children to have a Catholic education.

“I wanted an environment where my children were allowed to speak about God,” she said. Her daughter recently brought home artwork with a pumpkin that also included a picture of a cross.

She is a stay-at-home mom, and without the voucher, could not send her son to the school, she said. If at some point her children had to return to Sugar Creek Consolidated for financial or other reasons, “I would be okay. It’s a great school.”

Madison knows there is much statewide debate about vouchers and state tax dollars being diverted from public schools to choice schools. “I can see both sides,” she said. She previously worked as a speech-language pathologist at public school system in another community.

But she’s glad to have the opportunity to send her children to the Catholic school. “I do love St. Patrick’s. It’s an absolute blessing,” she said. While her daughter doesn’t receive a voucher, the kindergarten student does benefit from a partial scholarship and the family pays $250 per month in tuition.

The Madisons are among the increasing number of families who have taken advantage of the Choice Scholarship program, publicly funded vouchers to families that meet certain income requirements to send children to private schools.

In 2016-17, $146 million in state funding went for private school tuition through the voucher program, which has had significant growth in participation — from 3,900 students the first year [2011-12] to more than 34,000 students in 2016-17, representing 3 percent of statewide school enrollment.

The rate of growth did slow the past year. Meanwhile, the voucher dollars going to St. Patrick’s School increased from about $71,000 in 2011-2012 to $553,574 in 2016-17, according to state reports. The school, which is up slightly in enrollment this year, has 355 students in pre-K to grade 8. About 45 percent of students receive vouchers. [Preschool children do not qualify for vouchers.]

Statewide, debate continues about whether private schools receiving vouchers should be held to the same standards as traditional public schools, particularly when it comes to financial reporting and admission of students.

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette recently reported that “private schools in Indiana can choose to have unlicensed teachers; they can discriminate based on sexual orientation; they don’t have a public budget; their board meetings aren’t open to the public and they can deny admission to students because of grades, disruptive behavior and a students’ special needs.”

At the Indiana Department of Education, “Our belief has always been that [schools] receiving public dollars should be held to the same standards,” said Adam Baker, press secretary. The state’s voucher program — called Indiana Choice Scholarships — allows low- and middle-income families to use public dollars to pay for a portion of private school tuition.

Advocates say it gives families greater access to higher quality school choices that better meet their children’s needs. Opponents say the program takes tax dollars away from public schools and channels it to private schools that don’t have to follow the same rules or meet the same standards.

Jennifer McCormick, the state superintendent of public instruction, said during an August forum her department is “pushing back” against the state’s free-market style of school choice. She wants all schools receiving tax dollars to face the same academic and financial scrutiny as traditional public schools, according to WFYI Public Media.

“The baseline of quality choice in Indiana, I think, has to be examined,” she said during the forum conducted by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. “In my opinion, it should not be a free for all.”

Related Stories:
• Caston schools superintendent Douglass outlines finances as it loses enrollment
• Madison County debate mirrors state, national sentiments on school vouchers

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