INDIANA — Jennifer Madison wasn't unhappy with her son's traditional public school, but when she learned her son qualified for a state-funded voucher, she jumped at the chance to send him to St. Patrick's School in Terre Haute.

Both her son Hoyt, a second-grader, and daughter Ruby, who is in kindergarten, attend the parochial school.

Her son previously attended Sugar Creek Consolidated and "we loved that school. There were no problems. It has a loving and caring staff," she said. But the family attends St. Patrick's Church, and they wanted their children to have a Catholic education.

"I wanted an environment where my children were allowed to speak about God," she said. Her daughter recently brought home artwork with a pumpkin that also included a picture of a cross.

She is a stay-at-home mom, and without the voucher, could not send her son to the school, she said. If at some point her children had to return to Sugar Creek Consolidated for financial or other reasons, "I would be okay. It's a great school."

Madison knows there is much statewide debate about vouchers and state tax dollars being diverted from public schools to choice schools. "I can see both sides," she said. She previously worked as a speech-language pathologist at public school system in another community.

But she's glad to have the opportunity to send her children to the Catholic school. "I do love St. Patrick's. It's an absolute blessing," she said. While her daughter doesn't receive a voucher, the kindergarten student does benefit from a partial scholarship and the family pays $250 per month in tuition.

The Madisons are among the increasing number of families who have taken advantage of the Choice Scholarship program, publicly funded vouchers to families that meet certain income requirements to send children to private schools.

In 2016-17, $146 million in state funding went for private school tuition through the voucher program, which has had significant growth in participation — from 3,900 students the first year [2011-12] to more than 34,000 students in 2016-17, representing 3 percent of statewide school enrollment. The rate of growth did slow the past year.

Meanwhile, the voucher dollars going to St. Patrick's School increased from about $71,000 in 2011-2012 to $553,574 in 2016-17, according to state reports. The school, which is up slightly in enrollment this year, has 355 students in pre-K to grade 8. About 45 percent of students receive vouchers. [Preschool children do not qualify for vouchers.]

Standards & reporting debate

Statewide, debate continues about whether private schools receiving vouchers should be held to the same standards as traditional public schools, particularly when it comes to financial reporting and admission of students.

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette recently reported that "private schools in Indiana can choose to have unlicensed teachers; they can discriminate based on sexual orientation; they don't have a public budget; their board meetings aren't open to the public and they can deny admission to students because of grades, disruptive behavior and a students' special needs."

At the Indiana Department of Education, "Our belief has always been that [schools] receiving public dollars should be held to the same standards," said Adam Baker, press secretary.

The state’s voucher program — called Indiana Choice Scholarships — allows low- and middle-income families to use public dollars to pay for a portion of private school tuition.

Advocates say it gives families greater access to higher quality school choices that better meet their children's needs. Opponents say the program takes tax dollars away from public schools and channels it to private schools that don’t have to follow the same rules or meet the same standards.

Impact on public schools

The Vigo County School Corp. has been impacted by the voucher program.

Between 2012-13 to 2016-17, the Vigo County School Corp. lost an estimated $2.2 million to private school vouchers, including $540,973 in 2015-16 and $559,288 in 2016-17, according to state data and information provided by the Indiana State Teachers Association. The figure for 2014-15 was not available from state data, however, the Indiana State Teachers Association estimated the loss at $516,473, based on the following voucher amounts provided to private schools:

The former John Paul II Catholic High School: $27,327; Saint Patrick School, $428,045; Terre Haute Seventh Day Adventist School, $61,100.

In 2016-17, 128 students — Vigo County residents — attended St. Patrick's using vouchers, while 14 Vigo County students used vouchers to attend the Terre Haute Seventh Day Adventist School, according to a report by the Indiana Department of Education Office of School Finance.

"You always hate to lose money at a time when public schools are underfunded anyway," said Danny Tanoos, Vigo County School Corp. superintendent. "It's a big loss."

But Tanoos also suggests that compared to other similarly sized districts in Indiana, fewer Vigo County children are using vouchers, which "to me indicates people overall are satisfied with Vigo County schools."

Of St. Patrick's, he said, "I think they do a great job of teaching kids." He understands some parents want their children to attend the private, Catholic school for religious purposes. "I appreciate they have the right as parents to use vouchers. If they use it at a place like St. Patrick's, I'm confident they are getting a good education," he said.

But looking at it from a statewide perspective, he doesn't believe there is a level playing field when it comes to private schools accepting vouchers, or charter schools. "I don't think it's fair not to be held to the same legal standards," he said.

With charter schools, which are public schools, 10 percent of teachers at the school don't have to be licensed. Other professions, such as doctors, lawyers, or CPAs, don't allow 10 percent not to be licensed or properly qualified.

"Why should someone ... be allowed to teach without the appropriate training?" Tanoos asked.

As far as academic attainment, "Some of the worst school scores are from charter schools," he said.

He's also heard about cases where some children may not be accepted at voucher schools. "We have to take every kid, every day, no matter who they are or where they come from," he said.

Private school perspective

Patty Mauer, St. Patrick's principal, doesn't agree with voucher critics. "I think we're held fairly accountable already," she said.

Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program is the second most regulated choice program in the country, she said.

"Our schools take the state tests, receive A-F letter grades, agree to a page and half of assurances when applying to participate annually in the program. The IDOE does random parent eligibility audits as well as random school program compliance visits. We already file approximately 30 reports annually to the state," she said in an email, noting that she also consulted with John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Nonpublic Education Association.

Most St. Patrick's teachers are licensed, or in some cases, they have an emergency permit and are either working toward the license or come from out of state and are working to secure their Indiana license.

Financially, the school reports to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, its governing body. "We don't send any finance reports to the state," Mauer said. She also maintains the state does not subsidize private schools that receive vouchers. "The state subsidizes parents," who may choose to use the voucher at a private school.

"That's not our opinion. It's what the state Supreme Court agreed upon 5-0," she stated in an email.

Also, the law "explicitly allows our schools to maintain our admission process. This ensures that admission decisions are ... in the best interest of the student," she stated.

Mauer said, "We want to make sure we are the best fit," and the school wants to be upfront with parents as to what it can offer versus what public schools can offer "so parents can make the choice that best meets their child's needs."

There are time where "we may not be the best fit because of services we may or may not have." For example, sometimes with a special needs student's Individual Education Plan, the school may not have the necessary services — or ADA accessibility — for that child.

To meet those children's needs "would take a lot more money" than the school has, she said.

The school does serve special needs students, with some services provided by Covered Bridge Special Education District.

Looking at the big picture, Mauer said, "We are beyond a one shoe fits all philosophy in Indiana." The state now has traditional public schools, public magnets, public charters and a variety of non-public schools. "Through all those choices, families can find the right fit for their children," she said.

State superintendent's view

Jennifer McCormick, the state superintendent of public instruction, said during an August forum her department is "pushing back" against the state's free-market style of school choice. She wants all schools receiving tax dollars to face the same academic and financial scrutiny as traditional public schools, according to WFYI Public Media.

"The baseline of quality choice in Indiana, I think, has to be examined," she said during the forum conducted by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. "In my opinion, it should not be a free for all."

During an appearance at Indiana State University, the state superintendent also spoke about school choice. “Do I think it’s going to go away? No.” She doesn’t believe the state’s public schools have done enough to “toot our own horn — 97 percent of students are still in public schools.”

But when it comes to school choice, “That ship has sailed,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to turn back.”

Still, the state DOE wants to ensure that all schools benefiting from taxpayer dollars provide quality and are subject to the same accountability measures.

“Some states have really tightened up to make sure that quality choice is in place. Others like Indiana have left it pretty open,” she said. “We need that to be a quality choice.”

When it comes to accountability, traditional public schools are subject to state Board of Accounts audits, while board meetings and budgets are public. Teachers must meet licensing requirements credentials. Also, private schools receiving vouchers also can be more exclusionary in who they admit.

“We are really pushing on that,” she told her Indiana State audience. Are we going to get momentum on that? We’ll see. There’s not much of an appetite to have that conversation. But more and more are starting to pay attention,” in part because more people are becoming aware of the issue.

Molly Stewart, assistant research scientist at the IU Center for Evaluation & Education Policy (CEEP), confirms, "There is very little financial accountability written into the law."

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com