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Indiana private schools report possible enrollment jumps from voucher changes

A view of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. (WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Advocates for private schools in Indiana told News 8 some such schools report noticeable increases in enrollment this year, though hard numbers won’t be available for another month.

This year marks the first school year in which Indiana has had a near-universal voucher program. State lawmakers this spring repealed all of the restrictions on who can use taxpayer-funded vouchers to help pay for private school other than an income limit. Vouchers remain limited to families making less than 400% of the limit to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, currently $222,000 per year for a family of four.

John Elcesser, the executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said he’s heard from private schools that report more noticeable increases in enrollment this year than they would otherwise expect.

“We typically will see an increase annually at some level, but I think because of the expansion of the Choice Scholarship Program, I think those increases are more significant this year than they’ve been in the past,” he said.

Both Elcesser and Robert Taylor, the executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said school attendance figures fluctuate in the first few weeks of a school year because of students moving into and out of a district. State figures won’t become available until mid-September. Taylor said the superintendents he has talked to have not reported any unusual drops in attendance.

“We’ve heard very little to almost nothing in terms of a change to student enrollment outside of the normal influences that we see at the start of a school year,” he said.

State records show 355 private schools have been approved to take part in the Choice Scholarship Program this year. All but roughly a dozen are religiously affiliated. Elcesser said roughly 60% of Choice Scholarship schools are Catholic. Lutheran and nondenominational Christian schools are common as well. Participating schools also include small numbers of Seventh-Day Adventist, Jewish and Muslim schools.

According to annual reports prepared by the Indiana Department of Education, 52,614 students attended a private school using Choice scholarships during the 2022-2023 school year. Another 35,344 attended private schools without using vouchers. For comparison, more than 983,000 students attended a traditional public school, accounting for roughly 87% of all K-12 students in Indiana. Nearly 62% of Choice Scholarship students were white, and 71% came from families whose income exceeds $50,000 per year. In addition, 64% of Choice Scholarship students had never attended a traditional public school.

Taylor said the main concern public schools have as the voucher program expands is that participating private schools are held to the same standards as public schools. Choice schools must be accredited by the state of Indiana. Elcesser said students at Choice schools take the same assessments their counterparts at public schools do.

Both Elcesser and Taylor said parents should base their decision on whether to apply for the program on what is best suited to their child’s specific academic needs. Elcesser said parents interested in using a voucher should carefully research available schools and double-check their eligibility.