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The summer of 2011 illuminated a reality that Indiana policymakers have come to appreciate more and more over the past 1.5 years: There is (and was) a latent demand for school choice among Hoosier parents.  As the statistics bear out, parents relished the opportunity to take their rightful place as their children’s primary educators and enroll them in a school that best fit their learning needs.

Even with suboptimal circumstances, the response to Indiana’s choice legislation has been tremendous.  Although Indiana passed its statewide voucher bill in the spring of 2011, details of how the program would operate remained murky for months.  In fact, the rules and regulations for the bill were not released until approximately six weeks before the start of the school year – a time long past when most parents make up their minds regarding which schools their children will attend.  Despite the short notice, more than 3,900 students were enrolled in the school of their parents’ choosing using an Indiana Choice Scholarship.  (About 2/3 of these students were enrolled in Catholic schools.)  This high demand among parents to direct their children’s education was even more evident during the second year, as the number of students participating in the voucher program more than doubled.  (About 3/5 of these students enrolled in Catholic schools.)

The voucher bill passed in 2011 was unquestionably a good start, but the legislation was certainly not without areas for improvement. Given that Indiana was the first state to institute a program of this magnitude, it is certainly understandable that some compromises needed to be made along the way.  Nevertheless, with the success of the program in its first year and a half, legislators are now attempting to grow the program with HB1003.

If enacted, HB 1003 would expand the Indiana vouchers program to more families in the coming school years. Although amendments have been made to the original bill, HB 1003 would still empower more Hoosier parents with greater influence over their children’s education.  Expansions to the current voucher law include granting eligibility to the following groups of students:

  • Kindergarten students
  • Siblings of students who previously received a voucher or SGO scholarship
  • Foster children with family income below 200% of the Free or Reduced Lunch
  • Students with special needs with family income below 200% of the Free or Reduced Lunch
  • Children of parents who are in the military or an honorably discharged veteran with family income under 200% of free and reduced lunch

Additionally, the maximum amount of a voucher for students enrolled in grades 1-8 would increase from $4,500 to $5,000 for the 2013-2014 school year and $5,500 for the 2014-2015 school year.

While the ultimate fate of HB 1003 is still undetermined, such efforts are a hopeful sign for a future in which all Hoosier families will have the resources to enroll their children in the schools the parents deem best for them.

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This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program has received quite a bit of attention these past few weeks, and with good reason.  National experts indicate that it marks the most successful first year implementation in the history of the parental choice movement.  One aspect of the voucher program that has drawn attention of late is the high number of students enrolling in religious schools, particularly Catholic schools.  Although details on the final numbers are still a little murky, roughly 2,500 students in Indiana will attend a Catholic school this year on a Choice Scholarship.  For supporters of school choice, the level of participation in such a short time frame demonstrates an undeniable success.  For supporters of Catholic schools, the increase in enrollment comes as welcome news at a time when many Catholic schools are closing.  And for individuals who fall into both categories – proponents of school choice and advocates for Catholic schools – there is a temptation to link the two interests, identifying school choice as a panacea that can “save Catholic schools.”  As Scott Alessi’s post rightfully notes, though, it is important that our priorities are in line.

School choice is not merely a means to an end for Catholic schools.  School choice in and of itself represents an opportunity to address a social injustice, as more families are empowered with the opportunity to send their children to the school they desire.  Those who believe in the value of a Catholic education are certainly right in hoping that more parents would then choose to send their kids to a Catholic school.  Nevertheless, school choice is worthy of support even if not a single family chose to enroll their children in Catholic schools.  Redressing a wrong (i.e., that some parents have no say in what school their child attends) is always worthwhile and must remain the primary focus.  That Catholic schools will have more students is an encouraging, but secondary, consequence.

This school year marks the first opportunity for parents who meet income eligibility levels to apply for an Indiana Choice Scholarship for their children.  According to a WNDU story, more than 1,300 students had been accepted into the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program by the end of last week.  The article reports that roughly 470 of the students will attend Catholic schools in the Fort Wayne South Bend diocese (that number is now, at the time of this writing, up to 550).  To read the full WNDU story, click here: Vouchers spark 40% enrollment increase at Our Lady.

To some, 1,300 hundred students may not seem like a high number, given that the statewide limit on Choice Scholarships is 7,500 this year.  (The cap for next year is 15,000, and there is no cap in future years.)  In actuality, this number marks an undeniable success.  The rules and regulations for the voucher legislation were not released until the second week of July, families and schools a brief window to begin the application process.  Changing schools no doubt requires some level of adjustment for not only the students but the families as well.  In many cases, families were making the decision of whether to apply for a Choice Scholarship at a time of year when school enrollment has normally already been long decided.  One can reasonably assume that the uncertainty surrounding this new process may have caused some families to delay the decision until next year; this has in fact been observed in other states in the first year following enactment of choice legislation.  While the cap of 7,500 may not have been reached, that more than 1,300 students’ families have taken advantage of greater choice is a cause for celebration.

As USA Today reports, Indiana has just passed the nation’s most sweeping parental choice plan.  Boom.  This is huge.  My man Mitch…

See the details about this exciting legislation here.

As national school choice week begins, here is a little round-up of some promising legislative and advocacy action going on around the country.

Check out the National School Choice Week website for various activities being planned in your state.

A promising scholarship tax-credit bill gets out of committee in New Jersey, where it was previously stalled for months.

There would be a limit of 3,900 scholarships in the first year, which would expand to 40,000 by the fifth year. The scholarships are expected to be about $8,000 for each elementary school student and $11,000 for each high school student.

Pennsylvania has bi-partisan support to expand school choice in the state.

Greater school choice is being proposed by a bipartisan group of state senators. Among them is Philadelphia’s own Democratic senator, Anthony Hardy Williams, who made school choice a focal point of his platform in his run for governor last year.

Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia announced a push for school choice in this legislative session, and things look promising there to move forward.

The Governor also announced legislation which will establish a tax credit for companies donating to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to help lower income students attend nonpublic schools.

The Department of Taxation would be responsible for issuing the tax credits. The Department would be allowed to issue up to $25 million in tax credits in each fiscal year of the Commonwealth.

Mitch Daniels in Indiana is putting forward one of the most aggressive parental choice legislative packages anywhere, with both a non-capped voucher program and a much more robust corporate tax-credit program.  He went to bat for it big time during his State of the State Address, and a recent poll suggest that Indiana voters have his back.

South Carolina has tax-credit legislation in play.

Milwaukee has the possibility of expanding their already very large voucher program.  Messmer Catholic School, the oldest in Milwaukee, continues to grow steadily.  This should be the story of all Catholic schools in Milwaukee benefiting from a more even playing field through the large voucher program.

Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada attacks the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments as he pushes for a constitutional amendment in the upcoming session of the Nevada Legislature to allow for tax dollars to be used in a school voucher program that would include faith-based schools.

And a major national add campaign coincides to bring the issue more national prominence.

There is a lot more going on out there, I am sure, but that’s a wrap for tonight! Read the rest of this entry »

The national education reform organization, Democrats for Education Reform, are opening a chapter in Indiana and are likely to have an outspoken role in the upcoming debate in Indiana.

As the Indystar.com reported:

Every Wednesday morning for several months, a group of local Democrats has gathered for breakfast to address a tremendous problem for their party in Indiana: the idea that Democrats are obstinate roadblocks standing in the way of education reform.

The group has spent hours talking about hot-button education issues such as charter schools, teacher evaluation measures and school turnaround efforts.

But the power of the state teachers union, and the piles of cash it provides to candidates, has led many Statehouse Democrats to block changes that would significantly help students and families in areas represented by many of those same legislators.

…the early-morning group has spent months preparing for the upcoming launch of the Indiana chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, joining a national effort that has spread to several states. They will announce the formation of their group in coming days and plan to start a political action committee that will raise money for reform-minded Democratic candidates for local and state offices.

Though Democrats for Education Reform support school choice, it will be interesting to see how this particular debate plays out in Indiana.  It is likely to be the most contentious of the issues on the table.