- Associated Press - Monday, August 20, 2012

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Struggling Indiana public school districts are buying billboard space, airing radio ads and even sending principals door to door in an unusual campaign aimed at persuading parents not to move their children to private schools as the nation’s largest voucher program doubles in size.

The promotional efforts are an attempt to prevent the kind of student exodus that administrators have long feared might result from allowing students, when given the choice, to attend private school using public money. If a large number of families abandon local districts, millions of dollars could be drained from the state’s public education system.

“If we don’t tell people the great things that are happening in our schools, no one else will, especially not now,” said Renee Albright, a teacher in Fort Wayne. “There are private enterprises that stand to benefit if they can portray us as failed schools.”

The Indiana voucher program, passed by the legislature last year, is the biggest test yet of an idea sought for years by conservative Republicans, who say it offers families more choices and gives public schools greater incentive to improve.

But school officials worry about the potential loss of thousands of students, especially those from the middle class, and the state money.

Unlike voucher programs in other states that are limited to poor families and failing school districts, the Indiana subsidies are open to a much broader range of people, including parents with a household income up to nearly $64,000 for a family of four. The median income for an Indiana family of four was just over $67,000 in 2010, making many of the state’s nearly 1 million public school students eligible for vouchers.

The effect of the new vouchers was limited last year because the law passed just four months before the start of school, and many parents were still unfamiliar with the program. But this year, more than 8,000 students already have applied for vouchers, and there is room for up to 15,000. The number of participants could grow even more next year, when the ceiling on the number of vouchers is eliminated.

Leaders of poor urban schools, which suffered the most defections last year, are especially worried. A district loses $5,300 to $8,400 for each student who leaves.

After 113 of its students departed for private schools last year, the Evansville Vanderburgh district spent $5,700 to erect two billboards and place ads at bus stops to tout the district’s theme of “Bringing Learning to Life.”

Fort Wayne Community Schools lost 392 students to vouchers last year, the most in the state. That cost the district more than $2.6 million in state aid and led officials to cut 10 art, music and physical education teaching positions at elementary schools.

Principals have gone door to door in neighborhoods to make their case for the city’s public schools, touting improved test scores and a 90 percent graduation rate. The district has spent $32,000 on a marketing campaign titled “Their stories. Your school. Get back to school at FWCS.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide