January 24, 2014

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Vouchers, scholarships have had positive impact on Catholic schools

Conventual Franciscan Father Joseph West, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Clarksville, leads a dedication service of a new preschool building for the parish’s school on July 14, 2013. An influx of students with state-funded vouchers and scholarships via scholarship-granting organizations allowed it to expand its preschool. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Conventual Franciscan Father Joseph West, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Clarksville, leads a dedication service of a new preschool building for the parish’s school on July 14, 2013. An influx of students with state-funded vouchers and scholarships via scholarship-granting organizations allowed it to expand its preschool. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Sean Gallagher

It’s been just two and a half years since income-eligible parents across Indiana have been able to obtain a state-funded Choice Scholarship, commonly known as a voucher, to allow their children to attend the private or parochial school of their choice.

But in that relatively short amount of time, the effect that the voucher program has had on Catholic schools across central and southern Indiana has been great.

“The opportunity for vouchers and the generous support of our tax credit scholarship program has allowed many parish families to send their children to our Catholic schools, or keep them in our schools when otherwise it would not have been affordable,” said Gina Fleming, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.

The growth in the number of students receiving vouchers alone says a lot.

During the 2013-14 academic year, 4,749 students in the archdiocese received a voucher, nearly 20 percent of all students in Catholic schools across central and southern Indiana.

That is more than double the amount that received them during the 2012-13 academic year, which was more than double the amount for the 2011-12 academic year, the first year that the vouchers were available.

Much of this growth is due to increased giving to scholarship-granting organizations (SGO) and the hard work of school and archdiocesan officials to get the word out about vouchers and tax credit scholarships.

The value in tuition aid given to parents who enrolled their children in archdiocesan schools has grown from $4.4 million in the 2011-12 academic year to $20.1 million in the 2013-14 academic year.

While those figures may be impressive, seeing their effect in a particular school can bring home the importance of vouchers and SGO scholarships.

Just a few years ago, St. Anthony of Padua School in Clarksville had to lay off teachers because there wasn’t a high enough enrollment to maintain multiple classrooms for some grade levels.

That has all changed in just two and a half years. During the 2011-12 academic year, St. Anthony’s enrollment was 276 students. This year, it’s at 353 students—69 of whom received vouchers. Another 59 students received SGO scholarships, which will allow them to receive a voucher next year.

Nearly 40 percent of St. Anthony’s students this year received a voucher or SGO scholarship. However, many of these students are not new to the school.

Some are siblings of students who received a voucher in the past.

Elsewhere, students who live in areas with “F” graded public schools or students with special needs can also receive a voucher without having attended a public school. These changes in the voucher law were made last spring.

The influx of students with vouchers or SGO scholarships at St. Anthony allowed the school to expand its preschool offering by purchasing a larger building to house it and hire more staff members.

“I think we are very sound financially,” said St. Anthony principal Sheila Noon of the change the vouchers and scholarships have brought about in a short time. “We have money in savings. We’re doing well. We were always told that if we can fill those classrooms that will solve a lot of our problems.”

It’s allowed the school to expand its staff in other ways. It has a new resource teacher this year, and expects to hire for the next academic year an English-as-a-second-language teacher to help meet the needs of a growing number of Hispanic students in the school.

At the same time, the addition of new students at St. Anthony has meant that the population of non-Catholic students has grown from just under 20 percent of its enrollment to approximately 30 percent.

Noon, though, says that many parents have told her they appreciate the diversity in the school. And Noon shares the school’s expectations with parents who enroll their children for the first time at St. Anthony.

“We don’t question whether they’re Catholic or not Catholic,” Noon said. “[But] we tell them that we are a Catholic school. We insist that they do the religion classes and go to Mass with us. That’s what we’re about. If you’re going to come here, then you’re going to be a part of all of it.”

Noon said the growth in enrollment at St. Anthony has also had a positive effect on Catholic families who had been away from the Church for a while.

“We’ve had a lot of families that were non-practicing Catholics but have now come back to the Church … because of those vouchers,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of different shifts.”

Over the two and a half years that students with vouchers have been enrolled in archdiocesan schools, standardized test scores have remained high.

Fleming attributes this success to the hard work and dedication of teachers in archdiocesan schools.

“Many students come to us having been in schools that were unable to meet their needs,” she said. “Given this, added to the fact that we maintain a rigorous curriculum in our schools, students may come to us one to three years behind their grade-level peers.

“Our amazing teachers consistently can be found before school, during lunch and after school working with students who need additional support. Additionally, the [voucher] dollars generally go toward resources and personnel that help all students be successful.”

Before this school year, many students with vouchers have been new to archdiocesan schools because the state required that a student attend a public school for at least two concurrent semesters before being eligible for a voucher.

Additionally, in the past, SGO scholarships were only awarded to new enrollees in private schools.

Changes in state law, however, now have opened the door for SGO scholarships for families who have always enrolled their children in a private or parochial school.

Income-eligible students already enrolled in a private or parochial school are now eligible for an SGO scholarship. And if their family remains income-eligible, they can receive a voucher for the next academic year and subsequent years—up to $60,000 in financial aid over 12 years.

G. Joseph Peters, special consultant in the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education, describes this as “the most significant change to date” in the state’s educational choice program since it makes vouchers more easily available to families with a long track record of sending their children to Catholic schools.

At the same time, Peters does not expect the number of students with vouchers in archdiocesan schools to continue to increase at the same rate as they have in the first two and a half years of the program. He does foresee a continued need for SGO scholarships since the cost of education will steadily increase while there is a cap on the amount of money distributed to families through vouchers.

In any case, Peters encourages all eligible families to consider obtaining a voucher or SGO scholarship.

“The number of students with vouchers will grow some, but it will never be 50 or 100 percent of our student population,” he said. “There is a limit, and not everybody eligible will choose to do it.

“But we think that we need to leverage as much of the benefit as we can. That is why some $3.2 million was raised in 2013 for SGO scholarships in the archdiocese. We’ve always felt that our parents should get some educational benefit for the taxes they pay.”
 

(To learn more about a state-funded Choice Scholarship, commonly known as a voucher, log on to www.archindy.org/schools/vouchers.html. To learn more about how to receive a scholarship-granting organization scholarship or to contribute to such an organization, log on to www.archindy.org/schools/taxcredit.html.)

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