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Survey: Voucher parents switched for better academics, religious environment

Parents who use a program that redirects tax dollars to pay private school tuition, helping make Indiana a national hotspot for vouchers, say they wanted better academics, more individual attention and religious or moral instruction for their children.

Those were the key findings of a pro-voucher interest group’s survey released this week.

Indiana has the nation’s second largest, and fastest growing, voucher program. Launched in 2011, data released last month by the Indiana Department of Education showed 19,809 students are using vouchers this school year, more than double last year’s total of 9,324. No voucher program in U.S. history has seen anywhere near as rapid growth as Indiana’s.

The Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation is perhaps the nation’s most active proponent for vouchers. Over eight weeks from September to November, Friedman administered a Web survey of Indiana private school parents in conjunction with two other voucher-supporting groups — the Indiana Non-Public Education Association and School Choice Indiana.

Responding to email invitations, 4,072 private school parents completed the survey, including 1,588 who used vouchers. Among the findings:

  • A search for academic quality was cited by 62 percent of voucher parents surveyed as the main reason they used the program. Lack of instruction in morals and character (57 percent), large class sizes (55 percent) and a lack of individual attention (54 percent) in public schools, along with a desire for a religious environment (52 percent) were the other most common reasons cited for using vouchers.
  • One in four voucher parents surveyed said their public school did not support their decision to switch to private school, with one in six reporting that their public school actively sought to persuade them not to make the change.
  • Ninety percent of surveyed parents said they were very satisfied with the private school their children now attend.

Those who favor vouchers say they offer opportunity to primarily 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.

Vouchers are aimed at poor and middle income families. Eligibility in Indiana 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.

Indiana has never studied whether students who use vouchers show improvements in test scores or other signs of greater academic achievement. But most voucher accepting private schools score above average when compared to public schools on ISTEP.

Read the survey results here.