Vouchers prop up private schools

I’ve always thought that one of the motivations behind Indiana’s school voucher program was to create a taxpayer bailout for private schools, especially struggling Catholic schools. If that’s the case, it seems to have worked.

Enrollment for the state’s Catholic schools has held steady for the past 10 years, roughly the period that vouchers have been in place. Overall enrollment in accredited private schools has increased by 16%.

Contrast that with what’s happened elsewhere. Across the United States, enrollment in Catholic K-12 schools declined by 21.3% in the past 10 years, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic school enrollment peaked in the early 1960s at 5.2 million; it’s now about 1.7 million.

A recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows how this trend continues in St. Louis, where Catholic school enrollment has shrunk by half since 2000. The local archdiocese is embarking on a plan to close and consolidate schools, but that will be tricky, according to a community survey.

In Indiana, vouchers also cushioned the blow to private schools from the growth of charter schools. Indiana started charter schools in 2002 and greatly expanded them in 2011. They have grown explosively, especially in Indianapolis and Gary.

Enrollment in Indiana Catholic schools has barely flickered in recent years. In 2012, it was 49,787. In 2022, it was 49,614, according to Department of Education data. 

Lutheran schools grew in the past 10 years by 23%. Here’s a theory: Catholic schools are more likely to be in urban areas, where they compete with charter schools. Lutheran schools are often in small towns and rural areas, where the only competition is with public school districts.

The big winners in the voucher program have been what the state calls independent private schools, where enrollment has grown by two-thirds, from around 15,000 to over 25,000 students. Independent schools have also multiplied. In 2012, there were 97; today there are 120. Nearly all of these are Christian schools, often tied to evangelical churches. A handful are Jewish, Muslim or non-sectarian.

Indiana awarded over $240 million in voucher funding to 330 private schools in 2021-22. Schools that receive vouchers can’t discriminate by race, color or national origin. But they may – and sometimes do – discriminate against students and families by religion, disability, native language, sexual orientation, gender identity, test scores, behavior records and other factors.

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