Detractors: Ind. Voucher System Promotes Religion

fromWFIU

Indiana's new voucher program allows families with incomes up to $62,000 to take a portion of the funds that would have gone to a public school and convert it into a scholarship that can be used at a private school. The program has brought an enrollment rush at Catholic schools. Opponents fear the vouchers could siphon money away from public schools, and uses state funds to offer religious education.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And we go next to the state of Indiana, where an ambitious new school voucher program is proving controversial. This program allows many families to use state funds to pay a student's tuition at private or even parochial schools, and it goes farther than voucher programs in many other states. Opponents say this violates the separation of church and state and they are mounting a legal challenge. Kyle Stokes of State Impact Indiana reports that the vouchers have already reversed the fortunes of one small Catholic school in South Bend.

KYLE STOKES: Students at Our Lady of Hungary Catholic school begin every day with a prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible)

STOKES: A classroom full of seventh graders is facing a crucifix on the wall. It's all as routine as saying the Pledge of Allegiance here. This year, for the first time in a long time, classrooms are nearly full. Enrollment's up 60 percent thanks in part to the voucher program. Principal Melissa Jay says the smallest class this year has 20 kids. Two years ago, the smallest class had eight kids.

MELISSA JAY: That's a huge difference, to say eight and 20 - and I say only 20 kids, like that's, you know, a ridiculous sentence to put together in Our Lady terms.

WOMAN: (Unintelligible)

STOKES: Our Lady's one example of how Indiana's vouchers could be game changers. Similar programs in other states usually limit vouchers to low-income families in the lowest performing districts. Not in Indiana. Students from any district can apply for up to $4,500 of state funds. And even a family of four earning as much as $62,000 a year qualifies for some scholarship money. Melissa Jay says the vouchers encourage families to look around.

JAY: What does my kid need? What would my kid like to do? What do I want for my child? And then find the school that matches all of those desires.

STOKES: But the vouchers face stiff opposition, and Indiana's largest teachers' union is suing the state. Lead plaintiff Teresa Meredith used to teach in a private religious school. She argues that state money from vouchers is inevitably funding religious education.

TERESA MEREDITH: Some of the pieces of the religion were taught during portions of subject matter. And so it would be very, very difficult to isolate those out.

STOKES: That, Meredith argues, violates Indiana's constitution. State officials disagree, arguing that the money's going directly to parents, not schools. But some policy experts question whether it's money well spent. Indiana University education policy analyst Ashlyn Aiko Nelson says research shows the key could be transportation to school, which the vouchers don't cover.

ASHLYN AIKO NELSON: The parents of children who are the most likely to be underserved are the least likely to be able to transport their children long distances to access better and higher quality educational opportunities.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

STOKES: Fifty-four-year-old Jeanetta White is in Our Lady of Hungary's crowded hallways after school waiting to pick up her four foster children, all enrolled here with the help of state vouchers. Unhappy with her kids' public school, White says she was willing and able to send her kids to private school on her own dime until she heard about the vouchers.

JONETTA WHITE: I'm not anti-public schools, but public schools should have been doing what they should have been doing in the first place. And I, as one parent, would not have been dissatisfied.

STOKES: It may take thousands of dissatisfied parents like White for this voucher program to make a significant impact. Indiana capped the number of available vouchers at 7,500 this year, though families have only claimed about half of those. It may be that the real effects only become clear when Indiana takes off the enrollment caps two years from now. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Stokes.

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