By Cory Turner
National Public Radio
“Social justice has come to Indiana education,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said in 2011 after the state made several big changes to its education system. Among those changes was the new voucher program, capped at 7,500 children, to allow low-income students to use state education dollars to attend private schools. “The ability to choose a school that a parent believes is best for their child’s future is no longer limited to the wealthy.”
Of the children in that first voucher class, 2011-2012, most had two things in common: They were low-income and had attended public school.
“Public schools will get first shot at every child,” Daniels said back then in a speech to the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.”
Daniels, who is now the president of Purdue University, predicted that the voucher program was “not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana.”
He was wrong.
In 2013, Mike Pence succeeded Daniels as Indiana’s governor, and, within months, the now-vice president oversaw a dramatic expansion of the program. Lawmakers added new pathways for students to qualify, making the voucher more accessible to children who had never attended a public school. They also expanded the program’s reach to include some middle-class families.
Voucher enrollment doubled in one year.
“It’s actually grown almost exponentially as you look at the numbers,” says the law’s proud architect, state Rep. Robert Behning, a Republican.
It’s also popular, according to a 2016 survey conducted by EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers and other forms of school choice. Today, more than 34,000 students are enrolled in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program — 3 percent of students statewide.
To qualify, parents have to meet certain income limits. For a full voucher, worth 90 percent of what a state would spend in a public school, a family of four can earn no more than $45,000 annually, but students whose parents earn up to $67,000 can still qualify for a half-voucher. And for children already in the program, their family income can rise to nearly $90,000 annually.
The biggest headline from the program’s growth is this: Today, more than half of all voucher students in the state have no record of attending a public school.
Picture: Fry1989 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons