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Questions remain about implementation of school voucher law

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NIKI KELLY,

The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — For months, Sherry Fincher has worried about her son Marlon’s final two years in high school.

With Paul Harding High School closing, the 49-year-old Fort Wayne mother wasn’t excited about Marlon being bused to another high school across town.

“He needs stability,” Fincher said. “He’s done fine, but I think he could do so much better. I’m interested in him going to a smaller school to get personal teaching.”

So she was delighted when legislators finalized a voucher program that helps low-to-middle-income kids attend private school.

Fincher immediately called Bishop Luers High School for information and even had sophomore Marlon shadow a student at Luers to make sure he liked the school.

She and many other parents are calling around — private schools, the state and even the districts they want to leave — to get further details on the process. And private and parochial schools are also busy — some deciding whether to participate.

“I think there is a mixed reaction,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. “Some folks are cautiously excited. A few others have philosophical problems with accepting state money.”

The new voucher program takes a portion of state funding usually provided to public schools and gives it instead to families who want to send their children to private or parochial schools. It is one of the most expansive programs in the nation because it is not limited to low-income students or those in failing schools.

A family of four with a household income of less than $61,000 is eligible for a grant worth 50 percent of the local district’s per-student funding. A similar family making $41,000 or less would be eligible for a 90 percent voucher.

About 60 percent of Hoosier schoolchildren qualify under the income guidelines.

The amount of the grant is limited to $4,500 for grades 1 through 8, with no cap for high school.

The bill requires students to attend public school for one year before being eligible for vouchers, meaning current private school students could not receive a voucher. Kindergarten doesn’t count as the one year in public school.

Fincher would be eligible for a voucher of about $3,000. She knows she will still need to cover some of the cost but can’t afford full tuition.

A voucher in Fort Wayne Community schools would be worth between $3,400 and $6,200.

What isn’t clear — and the Department of Education is working on rules — is how the application process will work. For instance, will parents sign up with the state, verify their income and overall eligibility, receive a voucher and then shop for a school off a preregistered list?

Or will they find a private school and sign up for the voucher through the school?

And how do families make sure they get a voucher the first year, when vouchers are capped at 7,500 statewide?

“I’m barely scraping through, and if I could get these vouchers it would mean so much,” said Teresa Jefferson, who has two daughters in Fort Wayne Community Schools.

The single mother says her girls are doing fine academically, though she is paying for outside tutors.

“I’m trying to help them the best way I can,” Jefferson said. “The teacher just doesn’t have enough time to go around, so reduced class size is important.”

She is hoping a local Christian school will accept vouchers, but there are considerations.

Schools that participate still generally remain free from state regulations. But they do have to be accredited, take part in ISTEP+ testing and be placed in accountability categories like public schools.

Elcesser estimates that only half of the 700 to 800 non-public schools are accredited.

“For many of the schools who are already engaged with the state, much of what’s in this program is not real different, so it’s not a heavy lift for them,” he said. “Those not engaged with the state are trying to get a further grasp on it.”

Canterbury School — an independent, coed Fort Wayne school from early childhood through grade 12 — sent an email to its parents saying the school will not join the program.

“Accepting state vouchers would entail accepting state funding, and independent schools across the country are committed to not accepting public funds,” Headmaster Jonathan Hancock said.

“Accepting students with public vouchers would entail considerable regulation by the state. Issues of regulation and reporting requirements would in turn direct our curriculum, our faculty selection, and our testing requirements in a way that we believe would be inconsistent with our schools’ missions.”

Norm McNally, principal at Central Lutheran School in New Haven, said his board hasn’t made a decision on vouchers, and that some members have concerns and questions.

Among the questions, for instance, is whether the schools would have to take anyone who applies. He noted that two of Central Lutheran’s grades, first and eighth, are full. And he said the school is not equipped to accommodate some disabilities — pointing out that the computer room and library are on the second floor with no elevator.

Legislators wrote the law so that private schools could maintain their current eligibility criteria. But if a number of students are eligible for the same few spots, a public random drawing must be conducted.

Central Lutheran is open to children of all religions, but students must participate in religion class and chapel.

McNally, a former public school teacher, also has some philosophic concerns for the public schools.

“Some of them could take a big hit if they lose a lot of kids. I don’t know if that’s fair or a good thing,” he said. “Public schools sometimes get a bad rap, but they have to take all the kids, no matter what. It’s a lot to consider.”

Conversely, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend is ready and willing to participate.

“We’re grateful because we are now in a much better position to help needy families. I think this is great for Indiana,” Superintendent of Schools Mark Myers said.

“We are going to reach out broadly. This gives us an opportunity to talk about our schools. We haven’t done a lot of marketing, but maybe this is the time for us to talk about what we do well.”

There is one provision in the law that is a bit prescriptive, but Myers said it’s nothing to worry about. The patriotism amendment was added in the Senate to ensure against anti-American teachings.

It requires, for instance, schools provide a daily opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And it says eligible schools enrolling students in grades 6 through 12 must provide within two weeks of a general election five periods of class discussion concerning voting, the system of government, election laws, party structures and the responsibility of citizen participation.

“The church is not at odds with the U.S. government. The church supports the democratic process,” Myers said. “We have no problem doing those lessons. I think it causes good discussion even if it is a mandate from the state.”

Mike Christner, principal at Lakewood Park High — a Christian school in Auburn — said his district has capacity for 700 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Enrollment is about 530.

He said some people are nervous because of the state involvement, but he believes legislators have ensured autonomy.

“I don’t want to say we are excited from the standpoint that we expect a huge influx of students. But it does afford parents an opportunity to choose where they were limited before,” he said. “I love that fact that it really breaks down some barriers.”

 

 

 

 

Posted 5/23/2011

 

 

 

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