New Indiana School Choice Study:

John Kramer
John Kramer · November 30, 2011

Arlington, Va.—A new report released today demonstrates that school choice—including choice involving religious school options for parents and students—is well-established across Indiana. According to the report, “Opening the Schoolhouse Doors: Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program Extends Long History Of Choice-Based Aid,” Indiana offers ten voucher-style programs that allow students to attend private religious and private nonreligious schools. The report undercuts the claims of the teachers’ union, who filed suit to halt the state’s newest choice program (the Choice Scholarship Program), that expanding parental choice in education will somehow harm public education.

The Institute for Justice report coincides with a new article that will soon appear in the Indiana Policy Review, which documents that the state also operates five tax-credit programs that can be used for education in religious institutions in addition to the voucher-style programs outlined in the IJ study. Angela C. Erickson, an Institute for Justice research analyst who authored the report, said, “Indiana has a long and established history of offering voucher programs in which the government pays for needed services and recipients are given the choice of providers, including faith-based organizations. A parent relying on the Choice Scholarship Program to send her child to a Catholic high school is no different than a Hoosier Scholar or a Frank O’Bannon Scholar choosing to attend Notre Dame.”

According to the study, Indiana currently offers at least 10 scholarship, grant or voucher programs related to the education of its young people, from pre-kindergarten through post-secondary education. Like the state’s new Choice Scholarship Program, these programs allow recipients to choose private organizations, including religious institutions. The education voucher-style programs alone serve more than 100,000 students a year, totaling more than $278 million in annual state-funded aid. Erickson noted, “Keep in mind that complete data for some programs were unavailable, which means these estimates if anything undercount Indiana’s spending on such programs.”

The report provides details about each of Indiana’s current education voucher programs, including short explanations of each program, when the programs were enacted and, where available, data on the number of participants and dollars expended.

“Choice-based aid for kindergarten through post-secondary students—including those at religious schools—has been part of the educational landscape in Indiana since at least the 1970s and has never, until now, been challenged on constitutional grounds,” said IJ Director of Strategic Research Dick Carpenter. “Yet a ruling against choice would not only jeopardize these new opportunities, it would put similar decades-old textbook, transportation, scholarship and grant programs at risk.”

Most Indiana voucher-style programs operate the same way: Individual citizens who demonstrate a need receive funding, which they then spend at the service provider of their choosing—public or private institutions, including religious ones. The funds may go directly to citizens, or they may go directly to the institutions to defray the costs beneficiaries incur. Either way education vouchers follow and support the child. These choice-based programs give parents and students the ability to make the educational decisions that best suit their needs.

The Choice Scholarship Program builds on those efforts to bring the choice of a private school within the reach of more low- and middle-income families. In doing so, the program follows in the footsteps of successful higher education programs in Indiana. High school graduates have enjoyed school choice in Indiana since 1966 when the first Hoosier Scholars were named. During the first year, 1,828 students entered 33 public and private colleges or universities with $393,000 of aid. Since then several additional and much larger higher-education scholarship programs have been created to help post-secondary students make the choice that best suits their educational needs.

According to Erickson, “Religious schools may provide the best fit for some students. For example, Anderson University is associated with the Church of God and nearly a quarter of its students receive Indiana state scholarships totaling approximately $2.4 million per year. Marian University, associated with the Catholic Franciscans, has more than 30 percent of its students receiving state scholarships, totaling approximately $3.2 million per year. These students had the choice of where to use their scholarships and chose private religious institutions.”

On May 5, 2011, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law the most expansive school choice program in the nation. Once the new Choice Scholarship Program is fully phased in, more than 60 percent of Indiana’s families will be eligible for scholarships. The program brings a wide array of educational options within the financial reach of families all across Indiana.

The Choice Scholarship Program provides funds to low- and middle-income families throughout Indiana for use at the private school of their choice. Depending on family income, the scholarship is either 50 or 90 percent of the average public school spending per pupil in the family’s area. Scholarships are capped at 7,500 and 15,000 students respectively during the first two years while the program becomes established. To qualify, the student must have attended an Indiana public school for one year prior to applying for the scholarship and must be in a low- to middle-income family. The income limits are such that a family of four with an annual income of $60,000 may receive a scholarship, the amount of which is capped at $4,500 for students in first through eighth grades.

On July 1, 2011, national and state teachers’ unions opposed to school choice filed a lawsuit challenging the scholarship program. These groups argue that providing parents more educational options would harm public schools. They further argue the program violates the Indiana Constitution’s Blaine Amendment—which prohibits Indiana from using state funds to benefit religious institutions—by allowing parents the free and independent choice of public, private or religious schools.

Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Bert Gall said, “The Choice Scholarship Program is on firm constitutional footing because no money goes to private schools—whether religious or secular—but for the genuine and independent choices of parents. Furthermore, all families can still continue to use the public schools if that is what they prefer to do. This program is completely voluntary. The bottom line is that the lawsuit filed against the program is all bark and no bite.”

“This case is about who should control the education of low- and middle-income children in Indiana,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer. “The legislature, the governor and the Institute for Justice believe parents should direct their children’s education, but the teachers’ unions believe they should have the power to limit other people’s choices—that low- and middle-income parents should not have the freedom to select among the widest variety of educational options. That is why they filed this lawsuit.”