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.

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Enrollment up, but only a little

Enrollment in Indiana public and charter schools bounced back last fall as most districts returned to full-time, in-person learning. But not all the way back.

According to data released this week by the Indiana Department of Education, 1.03 million students were enrolled in public and charter schools at the start of the current school year. That’s up slightly from the previous year but about 14,000 short of number in fall 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enrollment had declined in the fall of 2020 as the pandemic took hold and many schools switched partly or fully to online or hybrid instruction. Much of the decrease was in the early grades, especially kindergarten, where enrollment shrank by over 7%.

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White students are declining in Indiana schools

I wrote this week that Indiana schools have become more racially and ethnically diverse in the past 10 years. One reason is that they enroll more students of color, but it’s also true that the number of white students has decreased – by quite a lot.

White enrollment in the state’s public and charter schools declined by 11% between 2010-11 and 2020-21, according to Indiana Department of Education data. Total enrollment held steady, thanks to increases in Asian, multiracial and, especially, Hispanic students.

Indiana is still a predominantly white state, but its white population is aging. According to census data provided by the Indiana Business Research Center, only 20.6% of the white population was under age 18 in 2020, compared to 32.3% of the nonwhite population.

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Schools reflect demographic change

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating story last week about America’s increased diversity as revealed by the 2020 census. Focusing on Columbus, Indiana, it showed that “small Midwestern towns” are where the nation is diversifying the fastest.

“One in seven residents in Columbus … was born outside the United States,” the story said. “Public school students collectively speak more than 50 languages and dialects at home. Roughly three dozen foreign companies operate in the area.”

You can also see this trend in enrollment figures for Indiana schools. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, students in Indiana public and charter schools who identify as a race or ethnicity other than white increased from 26.9% to 34.2%, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

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Pandemic reduced kindergarten enrollment

The COVID-19 pandemic produced “a vast exodus from local public schools,” and kindergartners in low-income communities accounted for a disproportionate share of children who didn’t enroll a year ago, according to a New York Times analysis.

Data from Indiana suggest something similar happened here. Enrollment in Indiana public school districts declined by just over 2% in fall 2020 from the previous year, but the number of students in kindergarten fell by about 8%.

The Times analysis – and Stanford University research, reported by Chalkbeat – tied much of the decrease to schools shifting to online learning to protect students and staff from COVID-19. The Stanford study found online learning alone reduced kindergarten enrollment by 3% to 4%.

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Where did all the students go?

Chalkbeat Indiana reported that enrollment dropped by almost 15,000 students this fall in Indiana public schools. I wrote that the loss to school districts was over 17,000 students. It gets worse. Judging by recent state data, enrollment in local public schools fell by over 24,000 students.

Where did they go? Several thousand moved to online schools, either virtual charter schools or online programs operated by other school districts. Some families apparently opted out of enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten. A majority of the missing students are probably home-schooling.

In terms of state funding, the loss of 24,000 students translates to a loss of nearly $150 million for public schools in the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost as much money as the schools lose to Indiana’s voucher program, which provides tuition funding for students who attend private schools.

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Some schools miss out on funding increase

Indiana legislators have been boasting this week about the “historic” increase in school funding they’ve included in the state budget. But Brown County School District Superintendent Laura Hammack has been thinking about how to cut spending by about $200,000 a year.

State base funding for Brown County schools will be reduced by that much under the two-year budget and school funding formula that lawmakers approved Wednesday.

Laura Hammack

“We have to make sure our revenues match our expenditures,” Hammack said. “To do that we have to reduce the budget.”

The state budget increases K-12 funding by 2.5 % each of the next two years. That’s better than lawmakers have done in recent budget sessions. As Hammack said, it could have been worse. But it barely matches the U.S. inflation rate of 2.4% predicted by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. And an outsized share goes to growing charter and voucher schools.

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