More than $130 million in state-supported scholarships was given to Indiana children last year to attend a school other than their local public school, if they wish.
Nearly $100,000 went to 25 students in the Brown County Schools district, according to a state report released last week.
“Choice scholarships” cover all or some of the cost of tuition at a private school. Instead of giving money to a public school to educate those students, the state transfers part or the majority of that state funding to a private or charter school, depending on the annual income of the child’s household.
State legislators passed the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program in 2011. Scholarships, or vouchers, were awarded to 7,500 students that year; the cap increased to 15,000 in 2012.
Starting with the 2013-14 school year, there was no limit on the number of scholarships that could be awarded.
Sixteen “choice schools” now accept vouchers in neighboring Bartholomew, Johnson, Monroe and Morgan counties. No such schools exist in Brown County.
District officials do not know where Brown County’s 25 choice scholarship students decided to enroll last school year.
“There’s no state reporting that would be issued to a public school district to sort of say, ‘Brown County, you have 25 students who are accessing these choice schools,’” said Brown County Schools Superintendent Laura Hammack.
The only way the district would find out about a current student transferring would be if a choice school called to request records after the student withdrew.
During the 2014-15 school year, the total of local students using vouchers was 33 — eight more than last school year.
“My hope is that as we are getting the great things out about Brown County Schools, as far as the public school option is concerned, that families are choosing to stay in the county to access the public school services that are here,” Hammack said about the decrease.
But she said she doesn’t have the data to back up that belief. Families who used scholarships one year might have decided to homeschool their children the next year instead, she said.
For a district facing declining enrollment, the 25 students who opted to attend a private school with a scholarship also are a funding issue.
Brown County Schools’ enrollment has been on a downward trend for several years.
About $5,800 is awarded per student to the school district’s general fund from the state.
If the 25 choice scholarship recipients decided to attend Brown County Schools, that would add up to about $145,000 more for the district’s general fund, which pays the salaries of administrators, teachers and staff.
“We could think about ways in which we could enhance our learning through those dollars to provide excellent services for those 25 boys and girls,” Hammack said.
“It’s absolutely a funding issue, and when you look at the sum total across the state of the dollars that are going outside of public school education, it is substantial.”
To appeal to the families who are choosing to go elsewhere, Hammack’s plan is to show off all the school district has to offer which smaller or private schools might not have, such as the award-winning theater program at the high school, or Project Lead the Way science and technology classes at the junior high and high schools.
She believes a desire for a faith-based education is one draw for families to send their child outside of the district. Most choice schools in the surrounding counties have a religious affiliation.
“I would love for all 25 of these students who are enrolled in another option to have the opportunity to participate in all that Brown County Schools offers,” she said.
“With that being said, I fundamentally understand parents’ choice to access private school education if that’s the will of the family for the best interest of their child. I just happened to have a personal bias towards this district, and I think, ‘Why wouldn’t anyone want to access the services that we provide?’”
Another reason families choose to leave the district may be because of a bad experience in a public school setting. Hammack said she would like a second chance with those families before they decide to send their child elsewhere.
But geography might play a role, too. For some students, a choice school is close than the local public school is, she said.
Hammack, who started as superintendent this month, encourages families, including those who homeschool, to give Brown County Schools another look, even if it’s only for a couple of classes.
“We want this to be a community school district where we serve all of the boys and girls for whom we are responsible to serve,” she said.
33 Brown County students received scholarships to attend a school other than Brown County public schools during the 2014-2015 school year.
25 Brown County students received choice scholarships during the 2015-2016 school year.
1,925.50 students were enrolled in Brown County public schools as of September 2014. (Kindergartners counted as half-students.)
1,972.79 students were counted in September 2015. However, enrollment did not increase; kindergarten students were counted as full students instead of half-students. If kindergarten students were counted as half-students, the enrollment at this time would have been 1,911.
To participate in the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, a student must have legal settlement in Indiana, be between the ages of 5 and 22 by Aug. 1 and be accepted for enrollment in a participating choice scholarship school.
Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, a student must also go through one of seven “pathways” to get a scholarship. Some of those include spending two semesters in public school, receiving a choice scholarship the previous school year, having to attend a school that has received an “F” rating, or living in an especially low-income household.
Choice scholarships typically do not cover the full cost of tuition at participating schools. The amount of state money that follows the student to his or her “choice” school depends on the family’s income.