Changes to Indiana’s voucher program in 2013 helped fuel dramatic growth and allow a growing share of wealthier families to access tax dollars to pay private school tuition.

The Indiana Department of Education’s data, released today, show 19,809 students are using vouchers this school year, more than double last year’s total of 9,324. The first-year number was 3,919. Indiana’s voucher program is the fastest growing in U.S. history and the nation’s second largest.

Proponents say vouchers offer opportunity to poor students at low-performing schools to attend usually higher-scoring private schools, and helps families with children whose parents feel they might fit better in private schools to afford it. Voucher opponents argue they drain away tax dollars intended for public schools while benefiting just a small subset of children.

This year, the state expects to spend up to $81 million on private school tuition through the program, up from $36 million last year. Vouchers redirect most, but not all, of the state aid set aside for each participant’s public school education. A small amount is returned to state coffers and shared among all public schools after all the program’s expenses are paid. Last year $4.9 million that was saved was redistributed statewide. That’s up from about $4.2 million the prior year.

Fort Wayne and Indianapolis Public Schools saw the most children living within their district boundaries use vouchers for private schools: 2,786 and 2,657 respectively. Voucher use was heavy throughout Marion County, but particularly in Lawrence (432), Perry (407), Warren (382) and Pike (339) townships.

Gary’s Ambassador Christian Academy had the most voucher students with 257, but three Indianapolis schools were in the top five: St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School (214), Cardinal Ritter High School (211) and Scecina High School (204).

Until this year, the vast majority of students using vouchers had to first attend public school for two semesters under state law. But that rule was loosened in 2013, allowing siblings of students using vouchers and students assigned to F-rated schools to avoid attending public school first. In all, about half the students who joined the program this school year — more than 5,000 — would not have been eligible without the changes.

Vouchers offer more tuition aid for poorer families. Eligibility depends on family size and annual income. The income guidelines allow a family of four with annual income less than $43,500 to receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education toward tuition. Families of four making more than that amount but less than $65,250, can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

Per-student state aid varies by district. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, the figure is about $8,000 per student. A maximum of $4,700 can be spent on private school tuition for elementary schools. There is no such cap for high schools.

The education department’s data show More families who don’t qualify for free lunch received vouchers last year, too. The percentage of students receiving vouchers from families with annual income above $43,500 jumped to 24.5 percent of children. That’s up from 18.8 percent last year, as 3,130 new children from families at the higher income level enrolled.

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Glenda Ritz, said she had not comment on the voucher data, preferring to allow the data to “speak for itself.”

Vouchers have brought intense opposition from teachers’ unions. The program, approved by the legislature in 2011, survived an Indiana State Teachers Association lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. The Indiana Supreme Court turned the suit away last year and declared vouchers legal. Before she ran for state superintendent, Ritz had been a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Teresa Meredith, ISTA president, said it was no surprise to her that last year’s changes to the voucher program appeared to benefit a large number of students already attending private schools.

“It only did what many suspected it would do — provide financial assistance to students already in private school,” she said.

The voucher program, Meredith said, only makes it harder for schools to serve Indiana’s neediest public school students.

“The whole program is really sad to me, when you see schools  in desperate need and you hear about struggling schools whose funding is being cut rather than looking at ways to go in and be diligent with kids in really challenged settings,” she said. “It seems like we are doing such a disservice.”

Among the ISTA’s objections cited in the lawsuit was the spending of state tax dollars on religious schools. The lawsuit argued that violated the constitutional prohibition against state support of religion. Vouchers continue to primarily benefit children attending religiously affiliated schools, mostly Catholic but also Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

Robert Enlow, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said between charter schools and the voucher program, Indiana is offering Indiana children more school choices than ever.

“We’re creating a much more varied set of options for families,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”

Unlike the other two large voucher programs in Ohio and Wisconsin, Indiana has looser rules from the start, which has allowed it to grow so quickly. Ohio launched its statewide program in 2006 and now has about 17,000 students. Wisconsin’s program began in 1990 and about 25,000 students now use vouchers there. It has since expanded to other parts of the state, serving about 1,700 additional students.

Both of those states limit vouchers to only communities with failing schools and caps the number of students who can receive vouchers. Indiana’s program has no cap and does not restrict income-eligible families from applying based on where they live.

Other voucher statistics released by the state include:

  • About 66.5 percent of voucher students are from metropolitan areas, 17.8 percent live in suburban areas, and 15.7 percent come from rural areas and towns.
  • More than 76 percent of voucher students are poor enough to qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program. For a family of four, that means less than $43,500 a year.
  • About 44 percent of voucher recipients are ethnic minorities, including 17 percent African-American, 18 percent Hispanic and 7 percent multiracial or Asian.
  • The voucher program saw an 8 percent growth in the number of participating schools over last year, to 313 from 289. The first year number was 241 schools or 23 percent less than today.
  • Students using vouchers now equate to 1.8 percent of Indiana’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. Students in the program live in 238 of Indiana’s 289 school districts. Most use vouchers to attend a private school located within their home school district but 32 percent go to a school outside their home district.
  • With incoming kindergarteners eligible for vouchers for the first time this year, 1,285 received them, or 6.5 percent of all voucher-users. The vast majority of voucher students, about 78 percent, are in grades 1 to 8.
  • When it comes to the new pathways the state created last year to using vouchers, about 14 percent of vouchers users this year are siblings of other voucher students, 9 percent were assigned to an F school and 5 percent are in special education.
  • Overall about 60 percent of voucher users previously attended a public school, but nearly 69 percent of those who earned vouchers for the first time had never attended public school in Indiana.
  • Last year about 7 percent of voucher users dropped out of the program. The figure was almost 9 percent the prior year.