|GARY, Ind. (BP) -- In the Griffin house, even the dog is polite. At a command from dad Roman Griffin, the golden retriever/chow mix skitters to her cage without a whimper. When a visitor steps in the front door, six children ranging from 5 to 17 -- including twins and a nephew -- sit beneath family photos in a red living room to offer their attention.
Naomi, 8, wears Hello Kitty slippers and a toothy grin. She says she'd like to be a preacher, teacher, fireman, policeman, scientist, and "play all the instruments." Her brother, 11-year-old Jailon, wants to "write fiction stories, mostly for kids and babies," and has learned at school that "anything is possible when you have God in your life."
Last year Naomi, Jailon, and an older brother, Roman Jr., left two public schools to attend Ambassador Christian Academy in Gary, Ind. They did so only because state-provided vouchers paid for the $4,300 in tuition and fees. Their parents, Roman and Sheila, support the household of eight with a combined $35,000 or so they net each year from jobs as a barber and receptionist.
Jailon and Naomi will attend Ambassador again this fall with vouchers. Roman Jr. will use one to attend a Catholic high school. Roman and Sheila Griffin aren't sure if they'll have the money to send their 5-year-old twin girls, ineligible for state vouchers, to Ambassador's kindergarten class this year. "If we could afford it they would have all been in a Christian school from the start," Sheila said.
As Indiana's path-breaking voucher program charts its second year, the Griffin children are among thousands of Hoosier students using state dollars to attend private schools. About 300 private, largely Christian schools in the state are accepting voucher students -- and gaining a financial boost as they arrive. The boost once was rare, but the school choice movement is surging, thanks to Republican statehouse efforts with occasional Democratic support. The impact in Indiana could predict how Christian schools will benefit from new school choice programs in states such as Louisiana.
Inside Ambassador Academy on a recent summer day, day campers drew with crayons in art class and jumped to a pop song in gym class. The school, sponsored by a local nondenominational church, crouches in an area of Gary where most streets host boarded windows and overgrown lawns. Ambassador served about 300 students from pre-K to eighth grade during the last school year. A third of them used vouchers.
Previously, enrollment was declining, school principal Vercena Stewart said -- but vouchers opened the door for Ambassador to attract families like the Griffins, who couldn't otherwise afford private school. The increased attendance has given Ambassador a financial leg up: As it aims to fill 396 seats this year -- half of them with voucher students -- the school has hired a new third-grade teacher and spent more than $100,000 on textbooks.
At Trinity Academy, another Christian school a few blocks away, linoleum peeled off the floor in a blue boys' restroom one afternoon in late June. In George M. Howard Jr.'s office, formerly a storage room, wires hung from an empty fluorescent light fixture, and the bathroom sink was clogged. But Howard, the school's executive administrator, is all optimism: "We're planning on buying 28 computers this year." Voucher funds will make that possible.
Trinity will remodel the restrooms and make other improvements as part of a plan to jump its enrollment from 50 to 114 students from preschool to sixth grade. Gary public schools laid off a quarter of their teachers this summer to stem a budget crisis, but Trinity plans to hire two more.
Vouchers even will help Gary's first private middle school, Mosaic, open its doors on Aug. 22. The school is nonreligious and will follow what executive director Andrea Coffer called an "expeditionary learning" style, with activities such as studying microorganisms from Lake Michigan. Mosaic was already considering opening before last year, but Coffer said, "Once the voucher program came about, we thought, this is a no-brainer."
The picture in Gary reflects what is occurring throughout Indiana. As years of recession squeezed family budgets, private schools in the state (as elsewhere in the nation) watched enrollment trickle away. But last year some accredited Christian schools picked up voucher students by the dozens.
Liberty Christian School in Anderson added almost 120 voucher students last year, increasing regular enrollment by one-fifth. In Fort Wayne, Blackhawk Christian School accepted 42 voucher students; this year it expects as many as 85. Of the 259 private schools approved to accept vouchers last year, 254 were Christian, one was Muslim, and four were secular. All the schools submitted to standardized testing, in accordance with state rules.
Enrollment at Indiana's Catholic schools had slipped over the course of a decade by several thousand students until last year, when -- according to a Wall Street Journal analysis -- Catholic school enrollment across the state jumped 2 percent. Another bump is likely this fall, as more parents are aware of voucher availability. As early as June, 5,000 students had already applied for Indiana vouchers, surpassing last year's total program participation.
Indiana's GOP-dominated legislature last year made the "Choice Scholarship" law the largest first-year voucher program in the nation with nearly 4,000 vouchers awarded. The vouchers aren't for just anybody, though: Children from high-income families may not receive them, and those who already attend private schools are ineligible. Kindergartners are also ineligible; voucher participants must have attended a public school for at least one year.
Most conservative legislators in Indiana voted for the voucher program, although a few were concerned it could pave the way for the state to regulate private schools, said Rep. Timothy Wesco, whose district includes portions of Elkhart. Wesco supports vouchers but shares long-term concerns: "I think eventually the schools are going to depend on that voucher money."
The average Indiana voucher was worth $4,150 last year. Since Indiana normally spends around $11,000 to educate a public-school student, the program saved the state millions of dollars. State officials returned $4.2 million in savings to public schools. Even so, critics of the program argue that it steals money from public-school coffers, resulting in layoffs.
"The money doesn't belong to public schools," snaps Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Bennett, when he hears those complaints. The state's responsibility is to "fund the education of children, wherever they go," in an effort to supply the best education possible. Bennett, a Catholic school graduate, said Indiana's voucher law wasn't intended to reverse Catholic school enrollment decline. But if those vouchers have enabled students to "leave public schools that didn't meet their needs, and go to private schools or Catholic schools that meet , I'm pretty agnostic about that."
If Bennett is agnostic, the Indiana State Teachers Association is devout: It has sued the state. In a case before the Indiana Supreme Court, the teachers union claims the vouchers violate the state's constitution, which, as in many other states, prohibits tax dollars from supporting religion. (Ten years ago the U.S. Supreme Court declared vouchers constitutionally valid.) Continued...