By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
In its third year, Indiana’s school voucher program has grown to be the third largest in the country.
And it’s making a difference for Indiana children – like Nicholas Ford, a seventh-grader who is attending St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in Indianapolis with a voucher.
“Since he’s been there, he’s been doing wonderfully. He’s been challenged. There are more opportunities for him to participate in extracurricular activities. He’s in the school play. He’s in the band. Academically, he’s doing fantastic,” his mother, Karinya Chrisler, said.
Through the program, eligible families can use public money to attend private schools. The amount varies based on grade level and family income; for the 2012-2013 school year, the average voucher was $4,091.
The program is open to families earning up to 150 percent of the federal free and reduced price lunch threshold ($63,964 for family of four), or 200 percent ($85,286 for a family of four) if the students have disabilities, according to the Friedman Foundation.
In 2013, the program was expanded to include siblings of voucher students and families living in failing school districts. Students who previously received a tax-credit scholarship from a scholarship granting organization are also eligible for vouchers, and families who rise out of the 150 percent cap can keep their vouchers until they reach 200 percent.
Parents and teachers have different roles in educating children, Chrisler said, and the voucher has helped her play her role.
“Every parent needs to consider … what’s best for their child. I like the fact that I’m able to decide what’s best for him. I’m the one that knows him; I’m the one that knows his needs, and I’m fully capable of working with the teachers,” she said.
“I’m not a teacher,” she said. “There are things I don’t know from a teacher’s perspective, but … I’m the one in the best position to make decisions for what school I think will be best for him.”
Finding a school
Chrisler learned about the school through a summer camp Ford attended there.
“I knew the tuition I could not afford, so I talked to some of the people at St. Joan of Arc, some of the parents, and they talked about how much they liked it and how well their children were doing,” she said. “A friend of mine told me about the voucher program.”
Chrisler looked into the voucher program, not thinking she would qualify, but she did.
“I ended up qualifying, and that’s when I made the change to send him,” she said.
St. Joan of Arc provided a better learning environment, she said, with fewer distractions, more respectful students and teachers able to teach without constant interruption.
Racial diversity was another important factor in her decision. Ford’s public school population was entirely black, she said. St. Joan of Arc is more diverse.
“That’s more representative of the world that we live in. It’s representative of our own family. Our world isn’t 100 percent African-American. Our family isn’t 100 percent African-American. It just wasn’t indicative of the society we live in,” she said.
Ford has attended St. Joan of Arc since fifth grade.
“He’s very personable, so he’s meeting lots of friends, and he doesn’t have the distractions he had at the other school,” she said.
A growing program
When the voucher program was enacted in 2011, just short of 4,000 children participated. In the second year, more than 9,000 did. This year’s program ballooned 20,047 participants.
A March state Supreme Court ruling in favor of the program and some advertising by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice contributed to the jump in numbers, said Robert Enlow, Friedman’s president and CEO.
The Indiana State Teachers Association opposes the voucher program, in part because vouchers are often used to fund religious schools, and because vouchers “drain much-needed resources from public schools,” said Mark Shoup, ISTA spokesperson.
Shoup noted that many voucher-eligible children still attend Indiana’s public schools.
“The vast majority of parents feel that traditional public schools do a good job educating children,” he said.
“Parents should make the best decision for their children, but they should pay for that decision,” he said. “I, as a taxpayer, should not pay for children to attend private religious schools. That’s just not a role for public dollars, for public money.”
Public schools offer great options for students and are well-respected in any Indiana community, he said.
“They are the best hope for the vast majority of children in the state, and all states across the United States,” he said.
The Friedman Foundation has sent mailings to eligible parents informing them of the program and directing them to a website.
“And it works,” Enlow said. “People are responding, and now it’s feeding on itself. The reality is, for parents, typically word of mouth is the best thing anyway.”
The program has been “fantastic,” Chrisler said, though her biggest complaint is that too many parents don’t know about it. Even the paperwork was a simple matter of providing her tax return and singing a couple forms, she said.
“The fact that the voucher allows me to send him to a school that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to send him to — I’m all for that, and I think other parents should have that choice.”
Chrisler said is looking at a few different high schools for her son and is hoping to send him on a solid path for the future.
“In the society that we live in, if you don’t get a good education, you get left behind,” she said. “He wants to go to college. I want him to go to college, and he needs to have that foundation, and get as much as he can in primary school and high school, so that his road into college is a smoother transition.”
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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