AFP Foundation-Indiana holds National School Choice Week event in Lafayette
Meanwhile, local districts are in a holding pattern as they wait to see what changes the legislature might impose on the program, which provides income-based, tax-funded scholarships for public students to attend private schools.
Over a downtown lunch Thursday, a group of about a dozen parents and grandparents met with officials from Americans for Prosperity and Indiana School Choice to discuss the program that remains at the center of a legal case before the Indiana Supreme Court.
“Anytime you can get together with folks and share information they didn’t otherwise already know is good,” said Chase Downham, AFP’s state director. “Our biggest challenge is getting information out there so people know these programs exist.”
The Indiana Supreme Court is weighing whether the program violates Indiana’s constitution. Oral arguments were heard in November, but there is no timeline on when the court might rule.
Four current or former Lafayette School Corp. officials are signed onto the lawsuit, which was backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association. LSC and other urban districts have the most to lose, voucher opponents say, since they’re in closer proximity to more private schools than their rural counterparts.
“We’re still trying to figure out what impact that has,” said LSC Superintendent Les Huddle of the voucher program. “The numbers are still unclear to us, where the students that were here formerly went. It’s hard to track that information.”
In the meantime, voucher proponents are proceeding as if the battle already is won.
“I think you have to,” Downham said. “As long as there are children in schools where parents feel it’s not meeting their needs, we’ll do everything we can to help them and help them find these options.”
In the 2012-13 school year, the second year of the voucher program, 9,324 families signed up, an increase from 3,919 in 2011-12.
The program made Indiana a national leader in reform circles. And it’s set to earn Indiana more exposure with the January appointment of U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.
“I will have the opportunity to take what we’ve learned in Indiana to Washington and also to ensure that states like Indiana have the flexibility and help they need to deliver top-quality education for students and families,” Rokita said after the appointment.
Republican lawmakers in Indiana continue to eye ways to expand the program. Bill proposals in the legislature would enable siblings of current voucher students to be eligible for the program.
A vote by the Indiana Senate Education Committee has been canceled.
Republican Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn, chairman of the committee, said any proposals to expand the system will have to first be approved by the House.
The proposal has faced opposition because it would sidestep a requirement included in the 2011 law that all students spend at least a year in public schools before becoming eligible for the subsidies toward paying private school tuition.
Kruse says he wants to see whether the House will approve a broader bill that would completely end the waiting period.
In the meantime, Huddle and other school officials are keeping a close eye on what happens in the Statehouse.
A principal concern is the increase in kindergarten students local districts have seen. Superintendents are wondering whether parents have enrolled their students in the program in order to obtain funding from scholarship granting organizations. By obtaining an SGO, the students would automatically be eligible for the voucher program at the first grade, rather than the second grade which is when most students become eligible.
“Certainly it’s something we’ll be monitoring next year as it unfolds,” Huddle said. “It may be a way for the student to enter the private schools for the voucher system by just attending kindergarten. Then the voucher program is paying for the rest of that schooling.”
Proponents say the program is actually saving schools money. That’s because the voucher can only cover up to 90 percent of tuition, meaning that at least the remaining 10 percent is put back into the school funding formula.
But Huddle said there are some misconceptions to that. If voucher students came from a single classroom or school, it would save money. But more often then not, students come from several classes or schools, meaning the district cannot downsize staffing or facility costs.
“It’s not dollar for dollar,” he said.