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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.
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.
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.
Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele issued his ruling Monday afternoon to deny a temporary injunction that would have halted Indiana’s recently enacted Choice Scholarship Program. The program provides vouchers to families who meet income eligibility guidelines and wish to transfer their child from a public to private school. Opponents of the Choice Scholarship Program claimed that the legislation violates Indiana’s state constitution, contending that the state would effectively be providing public money to religious institutions. In his ruling, Judge Keele noted that the public funds are directed to religious schools only upon the “private individual choices of parents.” Because the eligible families are the agents in determining where the vouchers are used – whether at religious or non-religious private schools – the judge held that the law is “religion-neutral.”
This ruling is a huge (even if anticipated) victory for school choice supporters throughout Indiana, particularly for the families who have been empowered with greater choice. By the time the application deadline for a Choice Scholarship passes, more than 3,000 students will be enrolled in the program.