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Voucher schools invite public scrutiny in accepting public dollars

What does school choice mean in Indiana? It means taxpayer-supported schools that can choose:

•To refuse admission to students on the basis of religion, economic background, academic record and more.

•Not to offer instruction to English language-learners or students with severe and profound disabilities.

•To conduct school board meetings behind closed doors.

•To teach creationism as science, in violation of federal law.

•To fire teachers without cause.

Taxpayers spent more than $36 million last year on schools not required to provide many of the services public schools must offer. A report released by the Indiana Department of Education this week showed that 19,809 students are using vouchers this academic year – more than double the number who received taxpayer assistance last year.

The General Assembly has expanded eligibility for vouchers each year so that there are now seven pathways for families to qualify. Almost 40 percent of Indiana voucher students this year were never enrolled in a public school. They didn’t choose to leave “failing” schools; they simply chose to use tax dollars at a private or religious school.

Vouchers are not limited to low-income families. A household with three children can earn as much as $102,000 a year and yet qualify for partial assistance. A quarter of the voucher awards this year are used by families at the higher end of income-eligibility limits. For a family of five, that’s more than $51,000 a year.

Each of the four Allen County public school districts saw enrollment losses to voucher schools more than double over the past year. Northwest Allen County Schools lost 132 students to voucher schools and Southwest Allen lost 107. Both districts earned top marks under the state’s A-F accountability system.

About 300 vouchers this year are being used at the former Imagine charter schools on Wells Street and Broadway. Ball State University declined to renew charters for the schools because of poor achievement, but school management simply was shifted to the control of Horizon Christian Academy. No public university provides oversight and school board meetings are not open to the public.

Cornerstone Christian College Prep in Fort Wayne has collected more than $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars since 2011. It earned an F under the state’s letter-grade system in 2012, but no 2013 grade was calculated. If too few students are tested, the state obscures test scores to protect individuals. Interestingly, Cornerstone enrolled 114 voucher students last year.

The state report is a revealing picture of the voucher program in terms of its financial cost and who benefits. What’s missing, however, is a credible evaluation of how voucher schools are serving students in academic terms. When they choose to accept public dollars, taxpayers should expect them to play by the same rules as public schools.