May 11, 2023 - Education

Vouchers could accelerate shift away from public schools

Change in public school enrollment, 2009 to 2020
Data: National Center for Education Statistics; Note: Includes pre-primary, elementary and secondary education. Data for Louisiana and Virginia are unavailable. Map: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

The massive expansion of Indiana's private school voucher program stands to supercharge a trend already accelerated by the pandemic — students are fleeing the state's public schools.

Why it matters: Public schools lose funding as they lose students, and some schools have been forced to shutter altogether.

  • That disadvantages the many students who can't turn to private schools or homeschooling because of a lack of resources or access.

Driving the news: Indiana is moving to a near-universal voucher program, opening it up to all but the wealthiest Hoosier families.

  • State lawmakers passed legislation this year to raise the income limit to 400% of the cutoff to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a common indicator of financial need.
  • Under the new guidelines, a family of four making up to $220,000 qualifies for the tuition-assistance program.
  • They also removed all other barriers to joining the program, such as having previously attended a public school.

How it works: The Choice Scholarship Program, also known as the voucher program, allows qualifying students to take up to 90% of the state dollars that would go to their local public school and put it toward their tuition at a participating private school.

  • The program launched in 2011, sold by proponents to help give students from low-income families a way out of "failing" public schools because at the time it was only open to families earning 150% of the free and reduced-price lunch rate — about $60,000 for a family of four.

By the numbers: Public school enrollment has fallen roughly 2% over the past five years.

  • State projections estimate that will accelerate and drop another 4% by 2025, as eligibility for the voucher school program expands.

Of note: While enrollment in traditional public schools and charters are both predicted to drop, the predicted growth in vouchers — more than 75% over the next two years — far exceeds the expected drop in public school enrollment.

  • That means many students entering the voucher program next year will likely be coming from a home-school setting or their families have already been paying tuition for them to attend private school.

Zoom out: Public schools nationwide lost more than a million students from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment fell from 50.8 million to 49.4 million.

What's happening: Over the past decade, a number of states, including Michigan and New Hampshire, saw enrollment fall primarily due to declining birth rates, reports Erica Pandey. Others, like Texas, saw numbers rise due to immigration.

  • Then the pandemic hit, and public schools were subjected to state and local guidelines. Many of them flip-flopped on virtual versus in-person learning.
  • Widespread teacher and staff shortages exacerbated the problem. Students rapidly fell behind. That pushed frustrated parents to pull their kids out.
  • As a result, private schools and charter schools gained students. The number of home-schooled students doubled to about 5 million.

Zoom in: While the state picks up the tab for thousands more private school students in urban and suburban areas entering the voucher program — expected to cost more than $500 million next year — some rural public schools will feel the pinch with funding increases at or below inflation.

  • As those schools struggle, their students often lack other options because fewer private or charter schools exist outside major population centers.

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