Indiana’s school voucher program grew 20% last year

Indiana’s private school voucher program grew by 20% in the 2022-23 school year—the largest increase in the number of students in nearly 10 years, according to a new report.

The Indiana Department of Education’s annual Choice Scholarship Program analysis released this month showed state funds paid private school tuition for 53,262 Hoosier students.

That’s compared to 44,376 students who used vouchers during the 2021-22 academic year.

With that growth came increased costs. The state spent $311.8 million on the program in the 2022-23 school year—29% more than the year prior.

Voucher participation and spending are expected to jump even more this fall after state lawmakers expanded the program to be nearly universal and open to almost all Hoosier families.

The broader eligibility provisions are projected to grow the voucher program to some 95,000 students by 2025—and more than double the state money spent on the Choice Scholarships, costing taxpayers $1.1 billion over the next two years.

As the program continues to grow, the vouchers are additionally less likely to be linked to low-income assistance.

In 2022-23, only 28.1% of voucher households had an income below $50,000, compared to 37.4% in the 2021-22 school year. Instead, most voucher recipient households were more likely to make over $100,000 than under $50,000.

“I think it’s great that Indiana is funding families and giving opportunities to families from across the income spectrum,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs voucher programs. “It’s a really good thing to see this growth in the Choice program, and I expect it to grow even more next year.”

By the numbers

The 2022-2023 school year saw the largest growth in the number of students since the 2014-2015 school year, according to the IDOE report.

A record 343 private schools participated in the last school year — up from 330 the year before. Most are religious schools that exclusively offer Christian-based education.

Nearly 62% of voucher students in 2022-23 were white, a 3% increase from the previous year. Only 9.5% were Black, which is less than the statewide Black public school enrollment of 13.1%.

Most voucher students live in a metropolitan area, but the number of students in suburban, rural, and town communities increased in the 2022-2023 school year.

About 64% of Choice Scholarship students have never attended a public school—a slight drop from more than 69% the school year before.

But for the first time in the program’s history, the percentage of students who previously attended an Indiana public school at any point in their educational history has increased, according to IDOE.

For the 2022-2023 school year, about 36% of students participating in the Choice Scholarship Program had a record of previously attending an Indiana public school. That means more students are transferring from their traditional public schools to those that are voucher-eligible.

Still, the majority of Indiana’s K-12 students—more than 87% —still attend traditional public schools. In 2022-23, 4.6% of students attended charter schools, 4.7% attended private schools with vouchers, and 3.2% attended private schools without vouchers.

Indiana voucher participation has grown rapidly since the program began in 2011, when less than 4,000 students used a Choice Scholarship. Spearheaded by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, the program intended to help children from poor families find alternatives to low-performing public schools.

But critics have long argued that most Choice Scholarship students will attend private schools with or without a voucher, meaning their tuition is an added expense for taxpayers and only the state’s wealthiest will benefit.

Public schools officials and teachers unions also remain opposed to Choice Scholarship expansions, arguing that its projected cost over the next two years will stymie K-12 education funding increases for public schools. They point to state law, too, that allows voucher schools to reject students for their religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or academic ability, among other reasons.

More growth on the horizon

Private “school choice” laws have surged in recent years as conservative lawmakers seized on parents’ frustrations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans have also used “parents’ rights” rhetoric to justify the laws, arguing that they empower families who are dissatisfied with the public school system to opt out.

Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature did just that in April, approving a massive expansion of the state’s voucher program, making nearly every student eligible to receive public money to attend private school.

After the expansion, the program could cost the state an estimated $500 million in fiscal year 2024, and another $600 million in the following fiscal year. The current state budget appropriates $240 million annually for vouchers.

With the change, higher-income families can now participate. The new two-year state budget—which takes effect July 1—raises the income ceiling to 400% of the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program, equal to about $220,000.

Currently, vouchers are limited to families that make less than 300% of the free or reduced lunch income eligibility level, meaning a family of four can make up to $154,000 annually.

Students will also no longer be required to meet other need-based criteria, or “pathways,” that are currently in place.

As a result, roughly 97% of students will now qualify for private school subsidies, according to the Institute for Quality Education. State projections indicate that participation could soar by nearly 42,000 additional students within two years.

School choice advocates are celebrating the move as part of a years-long effort to give every student the option of a publicly-funded private education.

“We’ve been saying that Indiana is the state of educational options. And I think you’re going to see faster growth than we’ve seen in the last few years because we’ve gotten rid of all of these sort of arcane pathways. Now you’ll see, hopefully, private schools growing, which is great,” Enlow said. “There is radically more growth to be had. The reality is we’re getting very close to a system where all dollars follow our kids.”

By Casey Smith. The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.