SOUTH BEND, Ind.
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.
In at least one district, public school principals have been pleading with parents not to move their children.
"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.
Our Lady of Hungary Catholic School in South Bend is among those institutions reaping the benefits of the vouchers. Just two years ago, it was threatened with closure by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. At the time, the bishop said several other schools were at risk of closing, too.
Now enrollment at Our Lady of Hungary has jumped nearly 60 percent over last year, largely because of an influx of voucher students. The halls are bustling more than they have in years.
"This has exceeded all crazy expectations," Principal Melissa Jay said.
At its height in 1953, the school had 702 students. But that number had fallen to 135 last year. It now has 213 students.
The enrollment boom has forced the school to hire three more teachers. It's also allowed all but the seventh and eighth grades to be separated into single classes. In years past, the school has combined grade levels because of low enrollment.
Other states that have introduced voucher programs also have seen booms in parochial school enrollment.
In Ohio, where children from low-performing public schools can use vouchers to attend private schools, about 70 percent of students receiving vouchers have used them to attend Catholic schools, said Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio.
That demand comes at a price to public schools, which say the voucher program siphons off money they need.
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.
Rita Baxter of South Bend said she won't be dissuaded from sending her 14-year-old daughter to the private Marian High School in Mishawaka.
The Baxters' 16-year-old son attends a public high school in South Bend, and his parents are pleased with his education. But they think Marian is a better fit for their daughter.
Baxter and her husband planned to pay their daughter's tuition to Marian on their own until he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer two years ago. His illness devastated their finances and made it impossible for him to continue working as a vice president for the Silver Hawks minor league baseball team. He is still recovering and can't work full time.
At first, they assumed Sara would have to forget about Marian. Then they heard about the voucher program.
"We're hoping that my husband makes a full recovery and goes back to work, and we can go back to just being normal and let somebody else have the voucher," Baxter said.
Tom Coyne can be reached at http://twitter.com/TomCoyneAP