Report shows scope of school choice

CLARIFICATION: The transfer report counts 5,407 students who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools District and who attend IPS “innovation network schools” as having transferred out of the district to charter schools. (Innovation network schools are part of IPS but operate much like charter schools and have their own school boards). If those students were counted as attending IPS schools, the proportion of state-funded students in the district who attend IPS schools would be 66.5%

Nearly 14% of state-funded K-12 students in Indiana attend schools other than public schools in their local school district, according to a report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education.

Some attend charter schools. Some attend private schools with help from state-funded tuition vouchers. But many transfer to public schools outside the district where they live, an option that has become increasingly common in the past decade.

Some districts are hurt especially hard by school choice. In Gary Community Schools, only 36.4% of students who live in the district attend local public schools. In the Indianapolis Public Schools district, the figure is barely half.

State legislation approved in 2017 mandates the annual report. The report does not account for students who attend private schools without help from vouchers.

In Gary, the big factor is charter schools, which enroll almost half the students who live in the district. Another 10% cross district lines to enroll in other public school districts, and 4.6% attend private schools using vouchers. Along with declining population, choice options have decimated Gary Community School Corp., where enrollment has dropped in 10 years from 12,000 to 5,000.

In the Indianapolis Public Schools district, 31% of students attend charter schools, 10% transfer to other public school districts and 8% attend private schools using vouchers.

Charter showing percentage of local resident students attending local public schools.

Districts with lowest percentage of local resident students enrolled in local public schools. Source: 2019-20 Public Transportation Transfer Report.

While Indianapolis has a lot of students in private schools, the prize for the most voucher students goes to Fort Wayne Community Schools: 12.9% of students who live there receive vouchers. South Bend is second, followed by East Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne.

This may say less about local public schools than about religious faith in the City of Churches. Indiana’s voucher program was sold as a way to help poor kids escape failing schools, but it has evolved. Income requirements were relaxed, and now a majority of recipients have never attended a public school. Surveys show the primary reason voucher parents choose private schools is for religious education.

Charter showing percentage of students receiving vouchrs.

Districts with highest percentages of local students receiving vouchers. Source: 2019-20 Public Transportation Transfer Report.

In much of the state, the biggest factor in school choice is inter-district transfers. Families can enroll their children in the school district next door, typically with no strings attached, if there’s room. Maybe they do this for convenience, or maybe they do it because they think a nearby school district is better.

Compact urban districts are especially vulnerable. Muncie Community Schools loses over 20% of its students to transfers, most of them to nearby rural or suburban districts. Anderson loses almost one-fifth of its students to nearby districts. Some small, rural districts – like Tri-Township in LaPorte County, Hamilton in DeKalb County and Medora in Jackson County – also lose a lot of students to nearby districts.

Conversely, students are most likely to transfer into districts that are suburban or rural and located near cities that struggle with declining population and economic challenges. Over 100 school districts are net winners in the student transfer game.

Chart showing districts with the largest net gain of students from transfers.

Districts with the largest net gain of students from transfers. Source: 2019-20 Public Transportation Transfer Report.

One district, Union School Corp. in Randolph County, is an anomaly. It loses a majority of the fewer than 400 students who live in the district to neighboring public schools. It also enrolls 10 times that many students through Indiana Digital Learning School, an online program run with for-profit giant K-12 Inc.

Want to see how your local school district fares? Here is a spreadsheet with data for all 290 Indiana school corporations.

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