More Northwest Indiana students are attending private schools through vouchers, although the program’s once explosive growth has slowed in recent years.
Indiana spent $161 million through the Choice Scholarship Program, according to an annual report prepared by the Indiana Department of Education and released last month. More than 36,000 Indiana students attend a private school through a voucher in 2018-19.
Voucher supporters applaud the program's expansion, while opponents maintain state funding for private schools affords little public accountability and safeguards. They contend public money is better spent on other alternatives, such as public charters.
The voucher program’s growth hit its peak around 2015 when it added about 10,000 students after lawmakers removed enrollment caps. This year, 832 more Indiana students signed up: a 2 percent increase.
In Lake and Porter counties, around 3,380 students use state vouchers to attend private schools, compared to just under 3,200 two years ago.
Established 2011, the program has evolved from its origins helping low-income students to escape failing schools.
It now allows students to skip attending public schools altogether through multiple qualifications that include if a sibling attends or allowing a student to receive vouchers for pre-kindergarten.
State voucher kick-in for wealthier families could increase to 70 percent
The annual voucher report comes as state lawmakers are considering boosting the amount of money more affluent families could get per voucher to attend a private school.
Those that qualify for free/reduced lunch can qualify for a voucher that covers 90 percent of state tuition.
Families who make up to 125 percent above the free/reduced lunch income qualification line can receive a 50 percent voucher to attend a private school. That could increase to 70 percent under a state budget proposal now pending in Indianapolis.
In Northwest Indiana, those private schools are still primarily religious-based. They range from Avicenna Academy, an Islamic school in Merrillville where students study the Quran, to Catholic schools in the Diocese of Gary where students attend Mass.
Hammond’s St. Casimir School continues to lead Lake and Porter county private schools with 321 students using vouchers, followed by Bishop Noll Institute with 297 and Portage Christian School with 218. Money follows those students.
Top schools benefiting are: Bishop Noll, $1.7 million; St. Casimir, $1.3 million; Portage Christian, $1 million; Gary’s Ambassador Christian Academy, $973,000 and Highland Christian School, $920,000.
About half of Highland Christian’s 361 students now use vouchers to attend. A lot of its marketing comes from its website or word-of-mouth, Principal Bob Payne said.
The school’s focus remains integrating faith and learning.
“It’s kinda what we’ve always done,” he said. “Parents want (the same message between) church, home, and school.”
The voucher program has allowed the school to bring in students from a wider geographic area, including Highland, Gary, Hammond, Griffith and Crown Point, he said.
“I think it’s definitely made our school more diverse, which we are thrilled about,” he said. “Much more reflective of our community.”
Gary Diocese makes $10.9 million
Just over half of the 3,380 voucher students in Lake and Porter counties go to a Gary Diocese school in 2018-19, according to a Post-Tribune analysis.
With 20 schools in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, the Diocese received $10.9 million from vouchers for 2,280 students in 2018-19, the report shows.
About 37 percent of its 5,500 students attend with vouchers, Director of Catholic Schools Joe Majchrowicz said.
“School choice, I think gives families and children the opportunity to access a quality education that they may not normally have,” he said. “And, I think that’s the key to it.”
Their high school graduates have qualified for around $10 million in scholarships, he said.
Diocese students “have an opportunity to compete in that environment,” Majchrowicz said.
The voucher program has helped to stabilize enrollment at St. Casimir in Hammond and St. Stanislaus in East Chicago where more than 80 percent attend on vouchers.
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
About 65 percent of Bishop Noll Institute students use vouchers, 50 percent at Marquette Catholic High School in Michigan City and 35 percent at Andrean High School in Merrillville.
At Illiana Christian High School, which moved from Lansing, Ill., to Cedar Lake in August, 34 of 470 students now attend through vouchers, bringing in nearly $143,000.
Northern Lake County school districts top locally where students are using vouchers to attend other schools, however; they are followed by others in southern Lake and Porter.
The School City of Hammond tops in Lake and Porter county with $4.7 million used for vouchers, followed by Gary with $3.3 million, East Chicago, $1.9 million and Merrillville, $1.3 million.
Others that follow are: Portage, $834,000; Lake Central, $555,000, Valparaiso, $538,000; Crown Point, $522,000; Highland, $336,000 and Lake Station, $331,000.
Smaller Christian schools get big boost
Several smaller private schools are also now essentially publicly funded through the Choice Scholarship program.
Israeli School of Excellence, a private school run by Gary’s Israel Church of Jesus, now operates at Lake Ridge’s former Grissom Elementary. About 34 of 45 students attend on vouchers, bringing in $210,000.
Schools that earn a D or worse under Indiana’s school grading system risk getting suspended from the voucher program. However, a 2016 law allows schools to apply for a one-year waiver, if they show academic improvement.
At least four Northwest Indiana schools applied for waivers since 2018: Portage Christian, Gary’s Ambassador Christian Academy, Griffith’s Calumet Christian and Merrillville’s Faith Academy.
All relied heavily on funding from the Choice Scholarship program - Portage Christian School earned $1 million, Gary’s Ambassador Christian Academy made $973,000 and Griffith’s Calumet Christian received $605,000.
Three were granted, while Faith Academy’s waiver application was rejected. Without accepting new students, its voucher funding dropped 42 percent to $383,000 this year.