Indiana’s school voucher population is getting whiter, more affluent – and a whole lot bigger. That’s the conclusion to draw from a report on the voucher program released this week by the Indiana Department of Education. A few highlights:
- More than 29,000 students are getting vouchers, seven times as many as when the program started in 2011-12 and a 46 percent increase from a year ago.
- 61 percent of voucher students are non-Hispanic white, up from 46 percent in the first year. That’s despite the fact that most voucher enrollment is in urban areas.
- Only 31 percent of voucher students are African-American or Hispanic, down from 44 percent the first year.
- Three in 10 are from higher-income families that receive less than the full voucher amount, double the percentage in the first year of the program.
Indiana taxpayers are paying more than $116 million this year for tuition at 314 private schools – nearly all of them religious schools, and almost all of those Christian schools.
And vouchers are going to families that are far from poor.
For a family that makes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, students get 90 percent of what it would cost for them to attend the local public school, typically over $5,000 a year. (The amount is currently capped at $4,800 for grades K-8).
Students from families earning up to 277 percent of the poverty level qualify for 50 percent of the cost of attending the local public school. And they don’t lose the vouchers if the family’s income rises, up to 370 percent of poverty.
For a family of four, the income cutoff is $44,123 to qualify for a half-voucher and $66,184 for a full-voucher. By comparison, the median household income in Indiana in 2013 was $48,374, according to census data. In other words, half of all households make more than that and half make less.
So vouchers are going to families that most Hoosiers would consider to be pretty well off. Take, for example, a couple with five children and income just under $100,000. If one child attends a public school for a year, all the siblings qualify for vouchers. They keep getting vouchers even if the family’s income rises to $130,000 a year.
That adds up to $14,000 in public tuition benefits for a family that makes nearly three times the median state household income.
Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett sold the voucher program in 2011 as a way to help poor children escape failing public schools. Initially, students were generally required to spend a year in a public school to qualify for a voucher. Daniels said that was a key part of the program’s design – that parents should give public schools a chance before giving up on them.
But in 2013, new Gov. Mike Pence and Republican super-majorities in the House and Senate opened the doors wide. Now students qualify for vouchers if they live in the attendance area of a school that got an F on the state grading system, if a sibling had a voucher, or if they qualify for special education.
More than half of the students receiving vouchers this year have never attended a public school, according to the Department of Education report.
As Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith told Chalkbeat Indiana, “The most expansive voucher program in America has become an entitlement program which, in large part, now benefits middle class families who always intended to send their children to private schools.”
Meanwhile Pence and the legislature are moving to eliminate the $4,800 cap on vouchers. And the budget approved by the Indiana House anticipates the voucher program will keep growing rate, with its cost surpassing $173 million by 2017.