BLOOMINGTON — Indiana's new private-school voucher plan has attracted applications from more than 125 schools seeking to take part in the nation's broadest such program, and most of the schools approved to date appear to have religious missions.
State Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron told the Herald-Times that while most of the 80 schools approved so far are religious in nature, the goal of the state's new law is to give students a quality education.
“We were looking for quality schools willing to be subject to accountability measures,” Damron said. “Those are the types of schools we expected to apply to the program.”
He noted that the law requires participating schools to be accredited, administer ISTEP and End of Course Assessments and receive letter grades from the state alongside public and charter schools.
Earlier this month, teachers, administrators and clergy sued in federal court, seeking to block the law on grounds that most of the 352 private schools whose students are eligible for the vouchers are affiliated with churches or other religious institutions.
Their lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction said the Indiana Constitution directs the General Assembly to educate children through a “general and uniform system of Common Schools.”
Voucher supporters are getting excited that the program is in place and moving forward, said Lindsey Brown, executive director of nonprofit School Choice Indiana, which advocates for expanded educational opportunities for Hoosier families.
“We're tremendously excited that this provides opportunities to families who might not otherwise have them,” Brown said. “The ZIP code you live in shouldn't determine the quality of education you're getting.”
St. Vincent de Paul School in Bedford is one of the schools that has been approved to take part in the voucher program. Principal Rebecca Floyd said her school chose to participate because it wanted to open its doors to all.
“We look at ourselves as not only serving the Catholic community, but the community at large. To open us up to others, who might not otherwise look at us as a choice, we felt that was important,” she said.
The program signed in law in May by Gov. Mitch Daniels makes 7,500 vouchers available this school year to low- and middle-income families to use public money toward private-school tuition. The program eventually will be open to nearly two-thirds of the state's families.
Opponents argue it will pull funds from already financially struggling public schools. The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union, has estimated the new law could cut public school funding by up to $65.8 million.
The Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese said it expects hundreds of additional students — and a bump to its budget — this fall through the voucher program.
In an article in the diocese's official publication, Today's Catholic News, Diocese Superintendent Mark Myers said he estimates 1,000 students would bring in about $3 million each year for the diocese.