September 16, 2011

A new choice in education

Voucher system opens doors for more families to attend Catholic schools in Indiana

Megan Ward says that Indiana’s school voucher system has created new educational hopes and possibilities for her three school-aged children, who now attend Holy Spirit School in Indianapolis. Her children are Matthew, left, Amiya and Olan. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Megan Ward says that Indiana’s school voucher system has created new educational hopes and possibilities for her three school-aged children, who now attend Holy Spirit School in Indianapolis. Her children are Matthew, left, Amiya and Olan. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The anguish shows on Megan Ward’s face when she recalls her children’s education last year—the communication problems with teachers, the sense that her children weren’t getting the education they needed, and the lack of emphasis on values at the public school they attended.

But seconds later, the 28-year-old mother of four smiles when she is asked about the effect of Indiana’s new voucher system on her family and the experience that her three oldest children are having at their new school, Holy Spirit School in Indianapolis.

“It seems there’s a plan of success for every child here,” Ward says. “My kids love it, and I have tons of information from the teachers about how to get in touch with them and what they’re doing in school. I have noticed a difference in values, too. They told us on the very first day that if there’s bullying, they wanted to know about it, and there would be consequences. It’s louder here that you need to treat people the way you want to be treated.”

She pauses and then adds, “I think the voucher system is ultimately going to give my children better lives. It will give them a better education, and I would pay for it if I could. I think education is the key to success in life. If we can get them to see how important education is, it gives me a lot of hope for their futures.”

Ward’s three oldest children are among the 1,028 students in Catholic schools across the archdiocese who have benefited from the Indiana voucher program. The program, which went into effect on July 1, offers financial assistance to families of certain income levels to help them select a school of their choice for their children. (See a list of all schools that have students with vouchers)

While the impact of the voucher system for archdiocesan Catholic schools has been most noticeable in the Indianapolis area, it has also made a difference in archdiocesan schools from Franklin to New Albany and from Terre Haute to Richmond.

“The overall feedback I’ve received is that people are thrilled with the ability to make an independent choice to find the best school that meets their child’s needs,” says Rich Ruhl, principal of Seton Catholic High School in Richmond, which has seven students who have been helped by the voucher system. “It’s opening doors for our kids and our families to attend our Catholic schools when they may have been precluded in the past because of cost.”

Indiana’s voucher program is targeted toward students coming from a public school or students who received a tax credit scholarship during the 2010-11 school year.

To be eligible for the voucher program, families have to meet certain requirements concerning family income. For a family of four with a total income below $41,348, the total annual voucher could be up to $4,500 for students in first grade through eighth grade, and more than $7,000 for students in high school.

For a family of four with a total income between $62,022 and $41,348, the voucher is for 50 percent of the school tuition amount.

The voucher amount is for each eligible student in the family, and the voucher would be received for each year through a student’s senior year in high school.

For a Catholic school student who has been helped by the state’s voucher system this year, the average financial benefit has been about $4,000.

The overall impact is about $4.3 million for families to help pay tuition and fees at the Catholic school of their choice for the 2011-12 school year, according to Ron Costello, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese.

Beyond the financial assistance, Costello says the students are receiving the benefit of a faith-based education that is also marked by academic success.

“It has always been a point of our schools to teach Catholic education. We haven’t deviated from that approach,” Costello notes. “Across the archdiocese, about 20 percent of our students are non-Catholic. They choose a Catholic school knowing they’re going to get a religious education.

“At the same time, one of the real strengths of our schools is the academic success. They’re getting a good solid education that will allow them to continue in post-secondary education. About 97 percent of our students go on to post-secondary education. And they do quite well.”

Monica Poindexter says the voucher system allows her daughter, Mia, to continue in the Catholic school system that has already made a difference in her life.

Of the 1,028 students in Catholic schools who are benefiting from a voucher, Mia is among the nearly 300 students who were already enrolled in a Catholic school thanks to the assistance of a tax-credit scholarship that was made available to low-income families in recent years.

For her first seven years of school, Mia attended Holy Angels Catholic School in Indianapolis. The voucher system has made it possible for her to continue her education at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis.

“Without this voucher, being a single mom, there’s no way we could continue this education much further,” Mia’s mom says. “Mia has just done very well. By the end of Mia’s kindergarten year, she was reading full-fledged books. When she took the I-STEP [Indiana Statewide Test of Education Progress], she passed [at the highest level] both sections [of math and language arts/English]. This is clearly the type of environment that’s working for her—the small class sizes, the family atmosphere.”

Even with the voucher system, Poindexter says she still has to sacrifice to help pay for the tuition amount that the voucher doesn’t cover.

“But it’s worth it to me,” says Poindexter, who also has a son in kindergarten at Holy Angels Catholic School. “As a parent, we just want what is best for our child, and this is working for Mia. To see her successful makes you feel successful as a parent.”

Poindexter’s joy reflects the overall attitude of parents whose children have been helped by the state’s voucher system, according to Kathy Mears, an assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in the areas of curriculum and learning resources.

“The Church teaches that the parents are the first and primary educators of their children,” Mears says. “This is a natural step in the process, that they would have a choice in the education of their child.” †


(Related story: Principals, priests and staff work hard to share benefits of voucher program)

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