School Choice Week promotes options for Indiana families, possible expansion of eligibility

About one in three students at Our Shepherd Lutheran School in Avon qualify for a voucher from the Indiana Department of Education to attend that school rather than their public school. (Our Shepherd Lutheran School photo)

HENDRICKS COUNTY, Ind. (WISH) — It is National School Choice Week, a time supporters say it is important to raise awareness about options for kids and also push for expansion of the program in Indiana.

The Hoosier State is one of 13, plus Washington D.C., where voucher programs are available. According to the Indiana Department of Education, more than 32,000 students used vouchers to go to a school different than the one they are zoned to attend during the 2015-2016 school year.

Our Shepherd Lutheran School in Avon chose to accept vouchers from the very beginning of the program six years ago. During the first year, eight children enrolled using that option. Now, there are 52. That’s just fewer than one in three students in the private school with a total attendance of 175 from preschool to 8th grade.

“Our average class size is 13 and that’s a small environment that the public schools would love to be able to offer. They just can’t,” said Our Shepherd Lutheran School Principal Jeff Huntington.

Huntington said accepting vouchers has increased diversity in the school giving students a more well-rounded experience.

“The parents should not be trapped in a school corporation that’s determined solely by where they live,” Huntington said.

Before the school choice program was created in Indiana though, if parents couldn’t afford a private school education, options were really limited.

“We have in the last several years recognized that choice does provide a lot of opportunities and really has made a difference in kids lives,” Indiana District 91 Representative Robert Behning said.

But not everyone supports the cause. Leaders in the Avon Community School Corporation where Our Shepherd Lutheran School is located sent the following statement to 24-Hour News 8 after declining an interview on the subject of school choice:

“The issue is not school choice, as parents know best what is good for their children, the issue is adequately providing funding for public education.”

“Anybody should be able to take their child’s share and enroll in the school of their choice,” Huntington said.

“You choose where to go to school for a variety of reasons. Obviously academic quality is hopefully the number one reason, but there are also a number of reasons why a parent might choose a school. Could be safety, could be bullying in one school and it just gives parents an opportunity to do what they think is best for their children,” Representative Behning said.

And as awareness increases, Huntington expects more and more parents to take advantage of vouchers at Our Shepherd and the other 300-plus participating schools across the state.

“If you qualify for this program, it’s not welfare, it’s not public assistance, it’s your tax money that you’re able to take advantage of,” Huntington said.

That’s why Huntington and other school choice supporters hope the program expands beyond just financial eligibility.

“It continues to be an agenda item at the state house every year,” Huntington said.

One of the student groups many supporters of school choice would like to see the program include is those with special needs. Thursday at 2:15 p.m. the Worthmore Academy in Indianapolis is holding a school choice celebration to promote that cause. There are several other school choice events happening this week.