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Voucher use climbs in county

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The number of Bartholomew County students using state vouchers to attend private schools has doubled in the 2013-14 school year, but public school officials are unsure of the impact.

About four in 10 voucher students across the state enrolled in a private school without every having set foot in a public classroom, according to a new report from the Indiana Department of Education.

It is unclear if the same is true locally, however.

The report shows that 114 students from Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and 15 students from Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. opted to use a voucher to attend private school, but it does not specify which school they chose to attend.

The four private schools in the area accepting vouchers — Columbus Christian School, North Star Montessori School, St. Bartholomew School and St. Peter’s Lutheran School — have collectively enrolled about 150 students using vouchers, but those students did not necessarily come from BCSC or Flat Rock-Hawcreek.

“We don’t know how many of those students may have already been going to those schools anyway,” BCSC Superintendent John Quick said.

Reports from private school principals suggest about half of them would have attended private school — voucher or no voucher.

Bob Abrams, BCSC school board vice president, saw things in a different light. He said the 114 students who chose to attend private school using the state voucher are 114 students BCSC lost.

The difference is in numbers. The BCSC district receives about $5,500 per student, which means it is losing out on up to $627,000 in state funding.

While that number — or Quick’s more conservative estimate of $275,000 — is only a small percentage of the district’s total budget, BCSC leaders agree the voucher program is a growing threat.

Currently three of the four private schools that accept vouchers — North Star Montessori School, St. Bartholomew Catholic School and St. Peter’s Lutheran School — feed into Bartholomew Consolidated schools.

But with the help of public funds, might these schools add grade levels?

Not any time soon, leaders at St. Bartholomew and St. Peter’s said.

“I really don’t see our school expanding in any dramatic way because of the voucher program,” St. Peter’s Principal Scott Schumacher said. “If the school expands, it’s only because more students want to attend Christian school.”

Besides, he said, he would like to maintain the strong relationship the school shares with BCSC.

But Quick’s concerns go beyond financials and beyond logistics.

The superintendent said he also has a philosophical issue with the voucher program. He believes there is a civic responsibility to support free and public education.

“Every time we lose a great family to a voucher, that’s someone who could have helped us build a better school system,” he said.

Kendall Wildey, administrator at Columbus Christian School, argued otherwise.

He said the voucher program is actually supporting both public and private education. A family can receive a voucher only up to $4,700 for a student’s tuition, but the state would pay a public school more than that. The extra money is then distributed among public districts.

“They don’t like to bring it up or talk about it, but the voucher system saves the state money,” Wildey said.

Regardless of such debates, Quick said he respects personal choices.

And St. Bartholomew School Principal Helen Heckman has seen how much families appreciate the ability to make those choices.

“They’re so excited to enroll their children with us. They never thought they’d be able to afford it,” she said.

Heckman also is pleased with what the voucher program has done for her school. With the $116,601 St. Bartholomew received from the state this year for 37 students, Heckman has hired more assistants to help with larger class sizes and added a part-time counselor.

Columbus Christian School received $437,016.37, and Wildey said the money is being spent on student support, technology upgrades and curriculum.

North Star Montessori School and St. Peter’s Lutheran School received more negligible amounts from the state — $9,400 and $36,847, respectively — but have noticed the impact in other places.

Schumacher said he has witnessed some students’ performance improve at St. Peter’s, as has Wildey.

“People aren’t running away from public education in hoards,” Wildey said. “It’s a family decision. Some people do better in our smaller school and smaller class sizes. It does not say that one is better than the other.”

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