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State voucher use keeps rising

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More local families are using tax dollars to send their children to private school, and local school superintendents want to know why.

Indiana began offering families the chance to use vouchers to pay for private school tuition in 2011. This school year marks the third year the vouchers have been offered to families, and 289 local students and 19,809 Indiana students are using them. That’s more than double the number of students who used vouchers at private schools last school year, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Local school districts receive between $5,000 and $6,000 from the state for each student who attends their schools. When a student uses a voucher to attend private school, they take that money, which pays for teachers’ salaries and insurance benefits, with them. At least one private school, Greenwood Christian Academy, has added more Advanced Placement and college-level courses for families coming to the school with the vouchers, headmaster Bruce Peters said.

“The more students you have, the more opportunities you can give families,” Peters said.

Public school officials aren’t worried about the rise in students with vouchers, but they do want to know why families are choosing to leave for private school.

“We’re not desperate, for lack of a better word. We just think we have room that we can grow, and we have a good product,” Greenwood Superintendent Kent DeKoninck said.

Greenwood had 90 fewer students at the start of school this year, and another 60 have left since the fall. Franklin has about 50 more students now than at the start of the school year, but overall enrollment has been dropping since 2008.

School officials at Franklin and Greenwood want to know more about why local students attend other schools, and DeKoninck wants employees to start meeting with families who plan to transfer to private school. The counselor or principal needs to find out if the private school where students plan to transfer offers programs or courses Greenwood doesn’t.

Then, school officials can decide whether any of the technical, college or Advanced Placement programs need to be changed, DeKoninck said.

“My main task is we need to do things in Greenwood schools to make us attractive,” DeKoninck said.

Franklin executive director of finance Jeff Mercer is encouraged that more students from all local school districts are using vouchers. If more students were leaving Franklin than other Johnson County schools, that would be a problem, Mercer said.

“I would have been concerned if I had noticed that Franklin was way out of alignment from people that looked like us, in our peer group,” he said.

More families are using taxpayer money to pay for private school, but not all private schools are accepting every student with a voucher.

Right now, 110 of Greenwood Christian Academy’s 540 students, or about 20 percent, use vouchers. Last school year, the school limited the number of students using vouchers to 10 percent of enrollment. School officials waited to see whether the Indiana Supreme Court would rule that using taxpayer money to send students to private schools was constitutional.

Now Greenwood Christian Academy is limiting the number of students who can use vouchers to 20 percent. School officials know the state could decide to limit funding for the program, and they don’t want to depend on that money to pay for teachers’ salaries or other costs, Peters said.

Families can receive taxpayer dollars to cover up to 90 percent of the cost of private school tuition if their income meets 100 percent of the free and reduced-price lunch requirements, or $43,568 for a family for four. If their income is within 150 percent of the free and reduced-price lunch requirements — or $65,352 for a family of four — they can receive a voucher for up to 50 percent of the cost of private school tuition.

Last year, state lawmakers expanded the program so more families qualified. That included widening the income requirements for families already in the program, so they could continue to receive vouchers if their income grew to within 200 percent of the free and reduced-price lunch requirements — or $87,135 for the family of four.

Siblings of students receiving vouchers and students from schools who received an F from the state can also receive vouchers, although no Johnson County school has received an F.

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