Local voucher funding for private schools doubles

People listen as Superintendent Kendall Wildey speaks during the groundbreaking ceremony for the building expansion at Columbus Christian School, in May 2022. Columbus Christian had the most students participating in the state school voucher program of any school in Bartholomew County — student participation rose 68% last school year.

Republic file photo

The number of students living within the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. who received public tax dollars to attend private schools through the state’s voucher program has continued to grow, reaching the highest number on record and outpacing the program’s growth statewide over the past few school years.

State tax dollars helped pay for 765 students within the BCSC district to attend private schools during the 2022-2023 school year through the Choice Scholarship Program, commonly referred to as the voucher program, according to a recent annual report by the Indiana Department of Education.

That was a nearly 62% increase from 473 students during the 2020-2021 school year, state records show. By comparison, the overall number of participating students in Indiana rose 49% over the same period.

At the same time, the state spent about $4.13 million in taxpayer money to help students defray the cost of tuition at local private schools this past school year — double the $2.06 million spent during the 2020-2021 school year.

And some local school officials say they only expect those numbers to grow in the coming years after state lawmakers this past session made nearly all students in the state eligible for the voucher program.

“More children qualify, and we’ve seen that reflected in our numbers, especially kindergarten, where we are almost full for the upcoming year,” said Alex Englebert, principal at St. Bartholomew School, a private Catholic school in Columbus.

Voucher expansion

The voucher program, which debuted in 2011 under then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and intended to help children from poor families find alternatives to low-performing public schools, allows students to use public money to pay for tuition at private schools.

But Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature has expanded the program since then by raising the family income limit to qualify for the program. In April, state lawmakers raised the income limit for a family of four from $154,000 to $220,000 and eliminated other eligibility requirements. Just a few schools year ago, the income limit for a family of four was $96,000.

Now about 97% of Indiana students qualify for private school vouchers for the upcoming school year, according to the Institute for Quality Education.

Proponents of the program and its expansion have said the vouchers allow parents to choose educational opportunities that fit the needs of their children.

“I think it’s great that Indiana is funding families and giving opportunities to families from across the income spectrum,” Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs voucher programs, told The Indiana Capital Chronicle. “It’s a really good thing to see this growth in the Choice program, and I expect it to grow even more next year.”

Critics, including many public school organizations, oppose the expansion as draining money away from traditional public schools that educate nearly 90% of the state’s students.

BCSC leadership, for its part, did not respond to requests seeking comment on how the expansion might impact the local public school system.

BCSC School Board Member Dale Nowlin said he doesn’t anticipate that the school corporation would lose a significant number of students due to the voucher expansion but expressed concerns about transparency.

“Most families earning more than $200,000 who want to send their children to a private school are already doing that,” Nowlin said. “This legislation just means that our tax money will now help them pay the tuition. There is not necessarily a gain in education for anyone.

“An additional concern for me in terms of the expanded voucher program is that we are spending about a billion dollars in tax money with very little transparency or accountability,” Nowlin added.

By the numbers

The program has grown rapidly across the state since its inception, including in Bartholomew County. Just 26 children living in the BCSC district participated in the program during its first year.

The 2022-2023 school year saw the largest growth in the number of students since the 2014-2015 school year, The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported. Overall, state funds paid private school tuition for 53,262 Hoosier students this past school year, up 20% from the 2021-2022 school year.

A record 343 private schools participated in the last school year — up from 330 the year before, according to wire reports. Most are religious schools that exclusively offer Christian-based education.

Nearly 62% of voucher students in 2022-23 were white, a 3% increase from the previous year. Only 9.5% were Black, which is less than the statewide Black public school enrollment of 13.1%.

Most voucher students live in a metropolitan area, but the number of students in suburban, rural, and town communities increased in the 2022-2023 school year.

About 64% of Choice Scholarship students have never attended a public school — a slight drop from more than 69% the school year before.

But for the first time in the program’s history, the percentage of students who previously attended an Indiana public school at any point in their educational history has increased, according to to the Indiana Department of Education.

For the 2022-2023 school year, about 36% of students participating in the Choice Scholarship Program had previously attended an Indiana public school, according to wire reports. That means more students are transferring from their traditional public schools to those that are voucher-eligible.

Still, the majority of Indiana’s K-12 students — more than 87% — still attend traditional public schools, according to wire reports. In 2022-23, 4.6% of students attended charter schools, 4.7% attended private schools with vouchers, and 3.2% attended private schools without vouchers.

Local figures

The annual report from the Indiana Department of Education also shows that seven private schools in Bartholomew County saw increases in the number of students who received vouchers.

However, some of the local data is incomplete as the Indiana Department of Education does not report the number of students less than 10 due to privacy laws. Several local schools had enrollment numbers of less than 10 during at least one of the program’s application periods over the past two school years.

Columbus Christian School — which had the most students participating in the program of any school in Bartholomew County — saw student participation in the program shoot up 68% last school year.

A total of 298 students at the school, which is located at 3170 Indiana Ave. on the east side of Columbus, received vouchers totaling about $1.76 million during the 2022-2023 school year, up from the 177 students who received $932,688 the previous school year.

And school officials are anticipating further increases in enrollment this coming school year.

“I think we’ll be up another 40 to 45 students from last year,” said Kendall Wildey, superintendent at Columbus Christian School. “…We literally only have a handful (of students) that do not participate in school choice.”

There were roughly 205 students who received vouchers totalling about $967,824 last school year at St. Bartholomew School, 1306 27th St. That was an increase from the roughly 183 students who received about $815,120 the school year before that.

Officials at St. Bartholomew School, for their part, say they are already seeing an increase in kindergarten enrollment for this coming school year, which they largely attributed to the voucher expansion.

“Probably the most significant change immediately that we’ve seen is an increase in our kindergarten enrollment because, under the previous state pathways, kindergarten students would not qualify,” Englebert said.

Voucher use also increased at St. Peter Lutheran School, 719 Fifth St., where there were roughly 285 students who received $1.57 million in vouchers last school year, up from roughly 234 students who received about $1.27 million in vouchers during the 2021-2022 school year.

At White Creek Lutheran School, 16270 S. County Road 300 W., roughly 81 students received vouchers during the 2022-2023 school year, up from roughly the 54 students who received about $306,367 the previous school.

Additionally, a total of 17 students at FaithPrep Academy 0f Indiana, 3170 Indiana Ave., received vouchers totaling $105,084 during the 2022-2023 school year, up from none the school year before.

Maple Creek Adventist Academy, 2809 N. Talley Rd., and North Star Montessori School, 2320 Midway St., also saw increases in the number of students using vouchers last school year.

Wildey, for his part, said that he thinks the state is moving closer and closer to universal school choice and expects demand for faith-based education to remain high.

“I think there are a lot of people out there who are looking for a biblical worldview type of education as opposed more of a secular worldview,” Wildey said.