FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) – Private schools across Indiana are nearing capacity under the state’s three-year-old voucher program, and the space crunch could force lawmakers to consider providing money to expand buildings.
The voucher program launched in 2011, when a survey showed there were about 22,000 open seats in private schools around the state. But the program has grown to 19,809 students this year, and there are no limits on the number of students who can apply for vouchers. That could force lawmakers to rethink how voucher money is allocated as they head into a budget-writing year in 2015.
Currently, vouchers cover the costs of salaries and operating expenses, but they don’t help pay for renovations or construction. Public schools also get operating money from the state, but they rely on property taxes for capital needs, The Journal Gazette reported Tosha Salyers, spokeswoman for the Institute for Quality Education, said it’s inevitable that lawmakers will face new questions about funding.
“There is a general consensus that there will be schools interested in expanding soon. They will have to start making that decision in the next few years,” Salyers said.
Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, agreed.
“We want an equal playing field. We have to have that conversation about facilities and voucher amount,” he said.
Enlow’s group is participating in a survey on capacity that’s expected to come out later this month. So far, about 200 private schools have reported having 13,000 available seats. But Indiana has more than 900 private schools, 300 of which accept vouchers. Enlow said the survey will look at whether schools have already expanded or plan to in the near future.
Expansion is a possibility at Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, where more than 200 of the school’s 867 students receive state-paid vouchers. Lead administrator Linda Pearson said the school is running tight on space.
“We have been fortunate for a long time that we have had good, full classes. But now kindergarten through sixth is full. So is seventh and eighth. We keep a waiting list, but people tend to just choose another school,” Pearson said.
“Could we expand in the future? Possibly,” Pearson said. “Even before vouchers, we talked about adding a class or two in elementary.”
Krista Nagy, lead administrator of Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne, said her school has about 125 voucher recipients among the 200 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade. She said the school can add two classrooms through a reconfiguration that would affect class sizes. But it will need to add modular classrooms or partner with another organization that has available space to reach an enrollment of 250 to 260. Nagy said she doesn’t expect the state to cover the costs of expansion.
“I would never expect the state to get involved. It would be something we would do internal fundraising for. It’s a local issue,” she said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said he expects voucher advocates to seek more funding next year. But he appeared skeptical that money would be allocated for capital projects.
“We will have to consider the whole picture,” he said. “Lots of people in the House and Senate would likely be reluctant to take that next step. Private schools have the ability to spread some costs in other ways.”