Weeks after Indiana began the nation's broadest school voucher program, thousands of students have transferred from public to private schools, causing a spike in enrollment at some Catholic institutions that were only recently on the brink of closing for lack of pupils.
It's a scenario public school advocates have long feared: students fleeing local districts in large numbers, taking with them vital tax dollars that often end up at parochial schools. Opponents say the practice violates the separation of church and state.
"The bottom line from our perspective is, when you cut through all the chaff, nobody can deny that public money is going to be taken from public schools, and they're going to end up in private, mostly religious schools," said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.
Under a law signed in May by Gov. Mitch Daniels, more than 3,200 Indiana students are receiving vouchers to attend private schools. That number is expected to climb significantly in the next two years as awareness of the program increases and limits on the number of applicants are lifted.
The vouchers are government-issued certificates that can be applied to private tuition, essentially allowing parents to channel some of the tax dollars they would normally pay to public schools to other institutions.
Until Indiana started its program, most voucher systems were limited to poor students, those in failing schools or those with special needs. But Indiana's is significantly larger, offering money to students from middle-class homes and solid school districts.
Nearly 70 percent of the vouchers approved statewide are for students opting to attend Catholic schools, according to figures provided to the Associated Press by the five dioceses in Indiana. The majority are in the urban areas of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, South Bend and Gary, where many public schools have long struggled.
John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said it's not surprising that Catholic schools are receiving so many of the vouchers, even though they make up fewer than half of the 415 schools in the group.
Most Catholic schools already had state accreditation, which some private schools lack. And they are more established and have more space available, he said.
John West, an attorney for a group suing to stop the Indiana program, said during a hearing on the issue that only six of the 240 private schools that have signed up for the voucher program are secular.
The South Bend district expects to lose $1.3 million in funding if all the students who have signed up for vouchers leave.
Interim Superintendent Carole Schmidt instructed principals to contact parents of students who are leaving to find out why and make a last pitch for them to stay.