By Samm Quinn
Fort Wayne dad Ethan Birch never thought it would be possible to send his 11-year-old son Keithan to a private school, especially after both were diagnosed with cancer within one year of each other.
Though Keithan's cancer is better today, his father is battling his third bout, which makes it hard for him to work. Still Keithan attends a private school this year, despite the family's financial instability.
But based on the state's accountability system, the new school Keithan chose isn't rated any higher than the one he left. And that's not unusual.
An analysis of Department of Education records shows:
- About one in five students who received a voucher this year is using it at a school rated C, D or F on the state's accountability standards.
Roughly 300 of the state's 9,324 voucher students chose an F rated school.
- About 21 percent of students who received vouchers left A or B rated school corporations to attend a private school.
- Supporters of public education find these numbers alarming - especially as lawmakers are debating legislation to expand the program.
"Public dollars should go to public schools," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. "I don't think that's a good use of taxpayer dollars to send children to poor performing schools than the public schools they were attending."
Indiana created one of the country's biggest school choice programs in 2011, opening scholarships even to middle class families. This year, 9,324 Hoosier students are using vouchers - also known as Choice Scholarships - to offset much of the cost of tuition at private schools across the state.
Keithan, who is now in fifth grade, would have attended Prince Chapman Academy, an East Allen County public school. Prince Chapman Academy has a C rating under the state's accountability system.
Instead he's using a voucher at Lutheran South Unity School, where he made the honor roll for the first time. It also received a C from the state.
But Ethan Birch said his son's school experience is vastly better than where he attended before, despite the same letter grade.
"All the public schools are worried about is the ISTEP test and what their numbers are during that time. I wanted him to go deeper than that," Ethan Birch said. "The personalized attention he receives from the teachers he wouldn't have gotten from the public school."
When choosing a school for Keithan, his father said he liked that Lutheran South Unity School allowed him to pray during class time.
John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non Public Education Association, said when looking at schools, parents aren't focused only on the school's A-F grade. They'll look at religious affiliations, values, school resources, safety and academic programs.
"Parents look for a lot of different factors when they're looking for schools," he said.
For some children public school is such a bad fit, the lower achieving - or equally achieving - private school they choose to attend is a better option, he said.
Elcesser is a supporter of voucher expansion, and said some critics aren't looking at the reasons those private schools received lower grades.
He said he's apprehensive about the metrics for how schools get graded. Statewide, Indiana had 148 schools receive F grades in 2012 and only five of them are private schools with voucher students.
"We're not happy with any schools with Ds or Fs," Elcesser said. "I thought we did well, but we're not satisfied."
For most private schools receiving vouchers, including four of the five failing private schools, 2012 was the first year their students took the ISTEP. Private schools are only required to administer state tests, like ISTEP, if they take on voucher students.
Elcesser said there are other factors that contributed to a failing grade. Private schools are typically much smaller than public schools.
"If one or two students struggle, that's going to impact overall performance," he said.
His reasons, he said, don't necessarily justify the schools' grades but it does explain them.
But opponents of an expansion say vouchers are taking money away from good public schools to give it to these lower achieving private schools.
Rep. Shelli Vandenburgh, D-Crown Point, said she is especially concerned about the students in her school corporation. Nine out of 10 schools in the Crown Point district received an A grade from the state. One school received a B. Yet 30 students left the corporation this school year - and that number could increase with or without a voucher expansion.
Vandenburgh said schools are being negatively impacted by students leaving the corporation with vouchers.
Students are "leaving wonderfully successful, cream of the crop public schools," she said."These choice scholarships are hurting good schools. They are hurting my children."
Crown Point schools aren't the only high achieving public school losing students. This year, more than one in five students who received vouchers left A or B rated school corporations, according to a DOE database.
Fort Wayne Community Schools lost 1,165 students this year and nearly $7 million in state funding. Though the corporation received a C rating from the school, some of its schools are A-rated.
Arlington Elementary School, which received an A from the state and is one of the district's top schools, has had the biggest number of students leaving.
Mark GiaQuinta, Fort Wayne Community Schools board president, said the voucher program is hurting a good school corporation.
"What vouchers do is they turn public school districts into failing school districts, which then justifies the vouchers, so it's a circular argument," he said. "It's having a real impact."
Though Fort Wayne school officials don't know exactly how many students left the district for an F-rated school, they assume most voucher students enrolled in the failing Fort Wayne private school came from their school district.
"While we don't have specific numbers of students who left us to go to an F-rated school, obviously, some - probably most - of the voucher students came from within our boundaries," said Krista Stockman, Fort Wayne Community Schools public information officer.
Cornerstone Christian College Preparatory School, located in Fort Wayne, received more than $500,000 from the state through the voucher program by enrolling 116 students, despite being rated a failing school. School officials did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.
There are four other failing private schools in Indiana: St. Vincent DePaul School in Elkhart, Jay County Christian Academy, Trinity Lutheran School in Hobart and Indianapolis Junior Academy.
House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, has been a strong proponent of vouchers and is the author for the voucher expansion bill. He said voucher schools must maintain a C rating or higher to continue accepting voucher students.
If the schools that received D or F grades this year receive similar grades next year, they won't be able to accept voucher students until they bring their performance up to at least C standards.
"Frankly, we have higher standards for our nonpublic schools than we do for our public schools," Behning said. "If they don't do anything after the fifth year, then they lose the opportunity to have any voucher students at all."
Ritz - who was elected state superintendent last year - has been a critic of vouchers from the start. She said failing private schools shouldn't receive state funding meant for public schools.
And she said she doesn't want the state expanding the voucher program and raise the amount of the vouchers to cover more of the school tuition costs.
But Behning said a voucher expansion will help families pay to keep their students in private school.
If Keithan can get a bigger voucher, he'll be able to keep attending the school he's doing so well at. His father said it's getting harder to keep up with the amount of tuition left over after the voucher.
He said Keithan's new school seems to put in more effort than the public school.
"They go so broad with what they're teaching, it's a lot of extra efforts, it seems like to me," Ethan Birch said. "That's why I'm so thankful for at least this year he had an opportunity to experience something like that."
Lawmakers are still working to find a compromise on two different vouchers bills passed by the House and Senate. Some lawmakers are still concerned about F-rated private schools.
Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, said he wants the bill's language to include a provision that would keep private schools from receiving voucher money if they received a D or F on the state's grading scale two years in a row.
"Our data shows that students are leaving higher performing public schools to use vouchers to attend private schools in some cases that in fact have a D or F ranking," he said.
Legislators have until Monday to reach an agreement on voucher expansion or the bill will die for the year.
Samm Quinn is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.