No one has done more than Rep. Bob Behning to shape Indiana’s wide-open system of school choice, including what’s arguably the most generous private-school voucher program in the country. Now Behning’s employer is tapping into that system as it launches an online private school.
Marian University Preperatory Academy will open in the fall of 2022, according to a news release from Marian University, a private, Catholic institution in Indianapolis. The school, described as “flexible” and “faith-focused,” will operate in a partnership with for-profit Stride Inc.
Tuition will be $9,500 a year for the school’s hybrid program, which will include in-person and online instruction; and $7,500 for its fully virtual program. The school’s FAQ section provides guidance for applying for Indiana’s voucher program, which can help pay tuition for families at most income levels.
The school is promoted on the Marian website under the auspices of the university’s Center for Vibrant Schools, which Behning directs. (He’s also an assistant vice president of the university). Jessica Morales Maust, Marian Prep’s head of school, is listed on the website as assistant director of the center.
Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who has served in the Indiana House since 1992, has long been the most influential state legislator on education policy. He authored the 2011 legislation that created Indiana’s private school voucher program, one of the first in the country. He promoted various expansions of the program, including the 2021 measure that extended vouchers to families making three times the cutoff for reduced-price school meals: $154,000 for a family of four.
Indiana spent $170 million on private school vouchers in 2020-21, according to a state report. It’s likely spending more this year with the program’s expansion.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Behning worked part-time as a Marian external affairs director for several years before becoming full-time director of the new Center for Vibrant Schools in July 2021.
The Marian news release says the new school, called MU Prep, will offer “a learning model that blends the best of virtual instruction and face-to-face engagement, and is grounded and guided by faith.” It will be “powered by” Stride Inc., which the release calls “the nation’s leading provider of innovative, high-quality and tech-enabled education solutions.”
Stride, formerly K-12 Inc., is a publicly traded corporation that reported revenues of $400 million in 2021. In Indiana, it works with several charter, private and public schools, including the Union and Clarksville school districts, which operate online schools enrolling students from around the state.
As is typical with online schools, Stride schools in Indiana appear to have produced less than stellar academic results. The online schools at Union School Corp., which have operated for several years, posted ILEARN proficiency rates well under half the state average last year. Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School, operated by Stride’s predecessor and led by a member of the State Board of Education, closed in 2018 after several years of failing grades from the state.
While Behning has promoted school choice in the legislature, Marian University has been a major player in state K-12 education policy. Its president, Daniel Elsener, served on the State Board of Education, where he often clashed with the Democratic elected superintendent of public instruction, Glenda Ritz.
The university’s Klipsch Educators College is named in recognition of a $12 million gift from Fred and Judy Klipsch. Fred Klipsch has contributed over $400,000 to Indiana Republican political candidates and conservative political action committees. He chaired Hoosiers for Economic Growth (now Hoosiers for Quality Education) and once boasted about orchestrating a multi-million-dollar campaign to persuade the legislature to adopt vouchers and expand charter schools. He worked closely for over a decade with Betsy DeVos, U.S. secretary of education under Donald Trump.