SOUTH BEND, Ind.
(AP) — Struggling Indiana public school districts are buying billboard
space, airing radio ads and even sending principals door-to-door in an
unusual marketing campaign aimed at persuading parents not to move their
children to private schools as the nation’s largest voucher program doubles
efforts are an attempt to prevent the kind of student exodus that
administrators have long feared might result from allowing students to
attend private school using public money. If a large number of families
abandon local districts, millions of dollars could be drained from the
state’s public education system.
"If we don’t
tell people the great things that are happening in our schools, no one else
will, especially not now,” said Renee Albright, a teacher in Fort Wayne.
“There are private enterprises that stand to benefit if they can portray us
as failed schools.”
voucher program, passed by the Legislature in 2011, is the biggest test yet
of an idea sought for years by conservative Republicans, who say it offers
families more choices and gives public schools greater incentive to improve.
officials worry about the potential loss of thousands of students,
especially those from the middle class, and the state money that comes with
programs in other states that are limited to poor families and failing
school districts, the Indiana subsidies are open to a much broader range of
people, including parents with a household income up to nearly $64,000 for a
family of four. The median income for an Indiana family of four was just
over $67,000 in 2010, making many of the state’s nearly 1 million public
school students eligible for vouchers.
Last year, the
effect of the new vouchers was limited because the law passed just four
months before the start of school, and many parents were still unfamiliar
with the program. But this year, more than 8,000 students have already
applied for vouchers, and there is room for up to 15,000. The number of
participants could grow even more next year, when the ceiling on the number
of vouchers is eliminated.
Leaders of poor
urban schools, which suffered the most defections last year, are especially
worried. A district loses $5,300 to $8,400 for each student who leaves.
After 113 of its
students departed for private schools last year, the Evansville Vanderburgh
district spent $5,700 to erect two billboards and place ads at bus stops to
tout the district’s theme of “Bringing Learning to Life.”
In Fort Wayne,
public schools lost 392 students to vouchers last year, the most in the
state. That cost the district more than $2.6 million in state aid and led
officials to cut 10 art, music and physical education teaching positions at
gone door to door in neighborhoods to make their case for the city’s public
schools, touting improved test scores and a 90 percent graduation rate. The
district has spent $32,000 on a marketing campaign titled “Their stories.
Your school. Get back to school at FWCS.”
A radio ad
features South Side High School salutatorian Will Coursen-Carr, a National
Honor Society member and pitcher who led the Archers to a 20-8 record and
their first sectional title. He plans to attend Indiana University and
become a teacher.
Community Schools is full of stories like Will’s,” the ad says.
teaches ethics, philosophy, psychology and history at South Side, wishes the
advertising weren’t necessary.
a fight we shouldn’t have to,” she said. But she understands the competitive
climate schools face.
Jr., headmaster of Cornerstone Christian College Preparatory Day and High
School in Fort Wayne, isn’t sympathetic. He said the voucher program forces
public schools to realize that every student matters.
His school added
94 voucher students last year, the second most in the state, which helped
boost enrollment from 26 students in 2010-2011 to 129. This fall,
Cornerstone will have an overall enrollment of 158, including 115 voucher
said he’s “glad public education is finally getting it.”
“It’s too bad
they have to spend money on an advertising campaign in order to get the word
out to kids and to parents,” he said.
No one knows yet
whether the marketing is paying off. Indiana schools won’t count students
largest district, in Indianapolis, serves some of Indiana’s most
disadvantaged students and has long struggled with low test scores. It lost
356 students to vouchers last year, and others to public charter schools.
members have gone to the homes of students who switched to private schools
last year or who dropped out and asked them to come back. The district is
touting its magnet schools, teaching methods that include Montessori and
Reggio and a performing arts and visual arts school.
director of an alternative program at Arsenal Technical High School in
Indianapolis, estimates 10 percent to 20 percent of the voucher parents he
has talked to showed an interest in returning to public school.
Cheresa Covington haven’t been swayed. They pulled their seventh-grader out
of public school because his language-immersion program promised more than
it delivered. The Indianapolis schools are underfunded and understaffed,
Cheresa Covington said, and the teachers “horribly, horribly overworked.”
This year, their
son will use a voucher worth $4,500 at a small private school in downtown
Indianapolis called the Todd Academy. Annual tuition is $9,850.
though, are willing to stay put.
Mikila Cook took
her now 13-year-old daughter, Bailey, out of Fort Wayne schools three years
ago to attend a charter school, thinking she would be in a smaller class and
get more attention. After five weeks, she found her daughter was in a bigger
classroom. So she moved her back to public school.
Cook won’t be
seeking any private school vouchers for her kids.
“I wouldn’t take
them out of Fort Wayne Community Schools for any reason at this point,” Cook
said. “I feel very confident in their ability to educate my children."