Indiana’s ‘freeway’ to accreditation for private schools

When Indiana adopted a “freeway schools” law in the mid-1990s, it was billed as a way to free public schools from burdensome regulations. Schools – or even entire school corporations – could get a pass on rules concerning curriculum, textbooks, etc., in exchange for signing a contract with the state to achieve and maintain high levels of performance.

But the program evolved into something very different: A way for private schools, especially religious schools, to be accredited by the state without meeting the same requirements as most public schools.

A list provided by the state Department of Education shows there are now 141 freeway schools . Almost all are private. Judging by their names, all but a dozen or so are religious schools.

Accreditation is a nice stamp of approval. But with the state’s new voucher law, it’s something more. Private schools that are accredited – including those that are accredited as freeway schools – can qualify for government-funded tuition vouchers for students who transfer from public schools.

This came to mind last week when the agenda for the State Board of Education included approval of freeway-school petitions from seven schools, six of them Christian schools. Were the schools racing to get eligible for vouchers?

Indiana private schools lobbied hard for the voucher legislation, and new data from the National Center for Education Statistics may suggest why. Nationally, enrollment in private elementary and secondary schools has been declining sharply – from 6.3 million in 2001-02 to 5.5 million last year.

Where did the students go? Here’s a hint: The number of students enrolled in publicly funded charter schools increased from 571,000 to nearly 1.5 million during the same time period.

Indiana’s voucher law may put a few more students in private schools. But the state is also trying to expand the number of charter schools, which are arguably the private schools’ main competitors.

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