The number of Indiana students statewide who attend private schools using taxpayer funded vouchers is now greater than the number of students enrolled in the entire South Bend public school system.
There has been a five-fold increase in the number of Indiana Choice Scholarships awarded since the controversial program made its debut in the fall of 2011.
This year, more than 20,000 students attend private schools using a voucher.
Perhaps nowhere on earth has the voucher program had a more profound impact than at Our Lady of Hungary School in South Bend, which is now nicknamed, “Miracle on Calvert Street, yes, we’re here,” said Our Lady Principal Peggy Shadler.
Our Lady of Hungary was in danger of closing due to low enrollment when the voucher program came along and saved the school single handedly.
“I just think that parents are looking for that kind of safe trusting environment where they know we're going to take care of their children,” said Shadler. “We're doing well; we are 150-vouchers out of 197 students.”
Last year, more than $520,000 in Our Lady’s tuition came from tax dollars. This year, that figure is sure to grow as three out of four students at the school now attend using vouchers.
“She even kind of tells us she wants to be a nun, so we’ll have to see when that happens, maybe,” said Erika Kazora who obtained a voucher for her daughter Emily when the program began in the fall of 2011.
The Kazoras already belonged to Our Lady of Hungary parish, and wasted no time in getting Emily into the school. Erika actually feared a program that used tax dollars to pay for religious education might not survive in the courts. “I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to get it because of the religion aspect, but I was kind of glad that it still got brought in and everything, I’m kind of glad we were able to keep it.”
Religion wasn’t the main reason that Brenda Buck obtained a voucher to send her daughter Layla to Our Lady. “I’m not a Catholic but I’m, I do believe in Christ,” said Brenda.
For starters, the school is about a block and a half away from the Buck family home, “and the school offers what I’m looking for in a school, the discipline, they’ll stick to the rules,” said Brenda Buck. “She was having some trouble with math when she was in the public schools, but here, you know, the teachers stay after, they want to help. Not that the public schools don't, I don't want to ‘down’ them, but here she only has 19 kids in her classroom.”
But some feel that helping 20,000 Indiana school children attend private schools through vouchers is hurting more than 1 million public school students.
“I don't think it's a huge percentage, however, it's enough of a percentage concentrated in the urban areas, that it does more to damage the urban areas and the urban publics than it does in the outlying areas,” said South Bend Community School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Carole Schmidt.
For instance, the income guidelines for vouchers follow those used to qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. That alone automatically puts vouchers within reach of 70 percent of all students in the South Bend schools compared to just 28 percent in the suburban Penn Harris Madison School Corporation.
In the first two years of the Choice Scholarship program, 928 students have used vouchers to exit the South Bend school system. The movement has cost the district some $5.9 million in lost state funding, and perhaps an immeasurable amount of damaged credibility.
“When the state provides more vouchers, the message is to parents, oh my goodness our public schools aren't doing a good job,” said Superintendent Schmidt.
Public schools have essentially been placed in a competition for kids where they can only lose, or hold their ground--financially.
“There is no country in this world, across the globe that has school reform as charters and vouchers and so until the system gets elevated with public education then we’re constantly going to be in this competition for the money as opposed to what do we do together to provide quality to kids,” said Dr. Schmidt.
Both Erika Kazora and Brenda Buck say the amount of money they receive through their vouchers is enough to cover the entire cost of tuition.
The task becomes much more challenging at the high school level where tuition is significantly higher.