Just a few years ago, St. Stanislaus Catholic Elementary School in East Chicago, Indiana had fewer than a hundred students and was at risk of closing. But then in 2011 Indiana lawmakers passed a law creating the School Choice Program, which provides public money to low-income parents who want to send their child to a private or religious school. Since then St. Stanislaus, better known as “St. Stan’s,”
has experienced a remarkable turnaround.
“It certainly has increased our enrollment,” St. Stan principal Mary Jane Bartley told WBEZ. “Last year, we opened a second section of 6th graders and this year we opened a second section of third graders.”
Enrollment at St. Stan’s has since doubled and other private/religious schools throughout Northwest Indiana might soon get a boost as well. That’s because Indiana lawmakers recently loosened the requirements needed for parents to become eligible to participate in the program. Sunday was the deadline for parents to sign up this year. 9,100 Hoosier students are already in the program, with a potential pool of more than a million, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
East Chicago, a small industrial city outside Chicago, is the only city in Indiana that has a majority Latino population, though African-Americans also make a up a sizable percentage. Catholic schools once dominated this city of 30,000 but as industrial jobs went away and the population dwindled most schools closed except for St. Stan’s. But even with the added students and funds, Bartley says the school isn’t out of the woods yet.
“We never were able to afford, and we still cannot, school counselors or psychologists or really even teacher aides in all the classrooms,” Bartley said. “So, therefore, it’s up to the classroom teacher to try to meet the needs of all children. I think our teachers are up to the task.”
Opponents of the program had challenged the constitutionality of providing taxpayer dollars to parochial schools. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the law last spring arguing that since the money is going directly to parents, there is no violation between the separation of church and state.
“That argument has been put to bed. The (Indiana) Supreme Court ruled that it is constitutional. We’re happy with the results,” says Marissa Lynch, Field Director for the Indiana Choice Program. “This is allowing parents a choice of where their child should attend school.”
But some still worry that the program siphons away public funds from school districts.
“It’s taking away from public education,” Cheryl Pruitt, the Superintendent for the Gary Community School Corporation, said on WBEZ’s Morning Shift Tuesday. Pruitt says private or religious schools are not monitored by the state the same way as public schools.
“They are not held accountable at the same level as the public schools,” Pruitt said.
According to Pruitt, the amount provided for each participating student, up to $4,500 depending on the family’s annual income, often doesn’t cover the entire cost of a private education. At some schools, the amount may cover only half of the entire tuition.
“When we look at those really good private schools, that cost is more,” Pruitt said.
But despite the costs being higher than the voucher amount, Lynch says parents are willing to chip in the additional cost to send their child to a private school.
Moreover, of the 9,100 families who are participating in the voucher program statewide, 81 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
“These are families who are making it work to go to the private schools,” Lynch said. “In a lot of the cases that I’m aware of, many of the schools did keep their tuition at about $4,500 for that elementary or middle school. If the fees were more than that, the schools would have some sort of fundraising internally to have some additional scholarship for the students to meet that gap.”
Meanwhile, the reaction from Hoosier parents has been mixed. East Chicago resident Keith Jackson uses voucher money to enroll his daughter at Bishop Noll Catholic High School in Hammond.
“Private school is a better fit for my daughter,” Jackson said. “Charter or the public schools did not meet all of my daughter’s needs.”
But Nilda Rivera, who sends her two children to Catholic schools in Hammond, opposes the program. This despite the fact that she’s eligible for vouchers.
“I think it’s a violation of church and state,” Rivera said. “I think they should use that money to fix up the public school system.”
Follow WBEZ NWI bureau reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.