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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.

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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 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.