Voucher changes likely a boost for private school enrollment

Gov. Mike Pence has proposed making private school vouchers available to more families, and that could mean more students using taxpayer dollars to pay for tuition at local private schools.

Pence wants state lawmakers to consider removing the caps from Indiana’s voucher program. Details about what that would involve haven’t been released, but local private school principals believe the measure, if passed, would make their schools even more affordable and appealing for families. And that could mean more growth in enrollment.

Right now, qualifying families can receive vouchers to pay for private school tuition if their annual incomes are between 100 percent and 200 percent of the amounts that would qualify them for free and reduced-price lunch. For a family of four, that’s between about $44,000 and $66,000.

Families can receive either 50 percent or 90 percent vouchers, which equate to half or nearly all of the amount that the student’s public school would have received if they attended that school. For example, a Greenwood family would receive $2,921 for a

50 percent voucher or $5,258 for a 90 percent voucher.

While a 90 percent voucher for a Greenwood student would cover the $4,900 cost of elementary school tuition at Greenwood Christian Academy, it wouldn’t cover all of the high school tuition, which is $7,900.

Lifting the cap could make it easier for low- and middle-income families to cover the entire cost of a private high school, Greenwood Christian Academy Headmaster Bruce Peters said.

“It would be great for families that are interested in private education, who can’t afford the difference between school choice money and regular tuition,” Peters said.

Right now, more than 600 students use vouchers to pay for tuition at Greenwood Christian Academy, SS. Francis & Clare Catholic School, St. Rose of Lima Catholic School and Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

Between 19 percent and 40 percent of the student bodies at SS. Francis & Clare, Greenwood Christian Academy and St. Rose of Lima use vouchers; and as

enrollment at the schools increases, the number of students using the vouchers should as well, school officials said.

Greenwood Christian Academy currently caps the number of students who use vouchers to pay for their tuition at 30 percent. The school’s concern is that if too many families pay for tuition with vouchers or state dollars and the program suddenly ends, there wouldn’t be enough money to pay for staff and other expenses.

The cap on voucher students at Greenwood Christian Academy was 20 percent two years ago, and school officials raised the cap as voucher use became more popular. School officials will decide this spring whether the cap needs to be raised again, and that decision could be based partly on whether the income cap on vouchers is lifted, Peters said.

Other local private schools, including SS. Francis & Clare Catholic School in the Center Grove area and St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Franklin, don’t limit the number of students using vouchers. It’s also unclear how Pence’s proposal would affect those schools, as 90 percent vouchers typically cover most or all of the cost of tuition, St. Rose of Lima Principal Rebecca Floyd and SS. Francis & Clare president Rob Richardson said.

SS. Francis & Clare, which has about 550 students, expects to have about 600 for the 2015-16 school year, Richardson said. Enrollment has been growing every year, and a building project to add a new preschool should free up classrooms for students in upper grades.

Richardson doesn’t know how many of next year’s students will use vouchers, but the number isn’t expected to drop from the 103 students using them now.

And any state legislation that increases the number of families using vouchers and looking for private schools for their children should be good for the schools, Richardson said.

“Looking at it from a pure business standpoint, how could it be bad?” Richardson said.

By the numbers

Here are the enrollment and voucher numbers for several local private schools:

Greenwood Christian Academy: 540 students, 160 using vouchers

SS. Francis and Clare Catholic School: 550 students, 103 using vouchers

St. Rose of Lima Catholic School: 180 students, 74 using vouchers

Roncalli High School (Indianapolis): 1,179 students, 279 using vouchers