FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) –This year is the biggest year ever for paid school vouchers.  

Vouchers, technically called the Choice Scholarship Program, pay private school tuition with taxpayer money. 

Allen County has an abundance of parochial schools that benefit from the voucher system – Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Christian and Muslim. A list of those participating schools has been attached to this story with the amount of money each school received during the last school year, 2022-23, and the number of voucher students. 

Initial qualifying household income for a family of 4 in 2011: $45,000. Now it’s $222,000

The voucher program, created by the Indiana state legislature more than a decade ago, kicked off in  2011-12. 

In 2011, a family of four with a household income of up to about $45,000 or just under 100% of the federal poverty rate qualified for a student voucher. The federal poverty rate is linked to the federal free and reduced lunch index.  In today’s dollars, that amount would be about $62,000.

The potential voucher student also had to have two semesters at a public school, often referred to as a “failing school.” In the first year, about 3,900 students participated.  

This year that number is expected to top the 53,000 voucher participating students last year.


Vouchers this year cover up to 400% of the federal poverty rate. This year, for a household of four the income can be as high as $222,000 a year.  Last year, it was 300% of the federal poverty rate.

Public school officials speak out

Two public school officials who agreed to speak to WANE 15 are sounding alarm bells over the expansion of the voucher system.  

If the voucher program hadn’t existed, SACS wouldn’t have had to put a referendum to voters last year, Phil Downs, a professor at Trine University and former superintendent of schools for Southwest Allen County Schools, told WANE 15 during an interview this week.

The referendum raised the property tax rate to  $0.15 per $100 assessed value for eight years, according to Eric Weddle, an education reporter for whose article was published in Chalkbeat Indiana.  The referendum pays for district teachers, classrooms, guidance counselors and security personnel.

‘We’re under attack’

“We’re under attack,” Park Ginder, current SACS superintendent, told WANE during a sit-down interview this week. “Our biggest challenge is convincing the community that public education is still the way to go. I’m not a fan of vouchers.”

While acknowledging that “some families are making decisions that are best for their family,” the voucher program is “taking the salt out of the building, out of the schools that can make us great.”

How vouchers work

The application for School Choice vouchers is found on the Indiana Department of Education’s website. Once a voucher is approved, the state pays the tuition money directly to a private school. The money is not put into a student family’s hands.

The voucher pays 90% of the tuition of the public school a student would be attending.

For instance, a family in the Northwest Allen County Schools district who enrolls their teen at Bishop Dwenger High School would receive 90% of NACS tuition or $5,787, according to this year’s guide. The tuition transfer is directly from the state, not from NACS.

Bishop Dwenger lies in the Fort Wayne Community Schools district where the tuition support amounts to $6,610.

If it sounds complicated, it is. But according to The Lutheran Schools Partnership website, there should be few worries.

Nearly 97% of Hoosier families now qualify for vouchers called School Choice scholarships. With the generosity of the voucher system, the tuition from any school district likely covers nearly 100% of any Lutheran school’s tuition, it says.

If the school tuition is higher than the allowed tuition support, then a family can apply for additional tuition assistance commonly referred to as an SGO. SGOs receive tax-deductible donations from donors who wish to help the student and their families pay to go to their preferred school.

Far from a poverty-stricken student seeking a better education at a private school, the average voucher student now comes from a household of four people with an income of about $82,000 a year, Weddle reported. 

For comparison, the median household income is around $62,000 in Indiana and about $65,000 in Allen County. 

With more than 41,800 more students qualifying this year, the total cost to the state could reach $1.136 billion, Weddle added.

According to data on the Indiana Department of Education website, slightly more than a quarter of voucher students come from households where the income is just under $50,000; The majority – 55% – of voucher students are from families with a household income between $50,000 and $150,000. 

Last school year, voucher students made up close to 5% of the total number of K-12 students in the state, a jump of about one percent in just one year.

Legal challenge to separation of church and state shot down

When the voucher program was enacted under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, there was a legal challenge mounted on the basis that the program violated the separation of church and state since most of the recipients of this taxpayer money are religious-based schools.

But the Indiana Supreme Court shot the challenge down in 2013.

Although the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend declined an interview stating that its spokesperson wouldn’t return until Aug. 9 and there was no response from the Lutheran Schools Partnership, supporters generally believe that school choice rightly allows a student and family the freedom to choose the school they wish to attend.

“The reality of politics and public opinion in Indiana almost guarantees that this expansion of School Choice will stay in place for at least a decade,” a statement reads on the Lutheran Schools website. “Any future challenges to this legislation will be met by a robust team of Indiana legislators, lobbyists and supporters who are poised to defend School Choice and optimistic about even more opportunities in the future.”

Attempts were also made to speak with State Sen. Sue Glick who represents part of northeast Indiana and is on the Education Committee in the Indiana state legislature. A message was left with the state Republicans chief spokeswoman, but so far there’s been no response.

Do private school cherry-pick students?

Critics say voucher schools cherry-pick which students they want. Nearly 62% of voucher students are white, a number that’s increased while 9.5% are black, a number that has decreased.

Critics like Downs say they would come closer to accepting the voucher program if there were accountability and if the state legislature really wanted to support all schools they would increase the tuition support by keeping up with inflation.

“The General Fund has grown by 62.5%,” Downs says out of which teacher salaries are paid. Tuition support has grown by 38% and inflation is at 41%.

“There’s plenty of money in the general fund to be allocated to pay teachers, but the legislature has made a decision to pay teachers below the average on inflation and that is for teachers who receive vouchers and public school teachers,” Downs said.

Vouchers cut in to the per pupil cost that was $6,200 and should have grown to $8,500 per student, Downs said. Last year’s per pupil cost was $8,200, but is reduced to $7,800 when vouchers students are included in that amount. That’s a $700 decrease on average per student.

Even if it doesn’t sound like a lot of money, when you multiply that by the number of students in a district like Southwest Allen, where Downs was the superintendent, it amounts to about $5 million.

“Recently Southwest Allen passed a referendum asking for less than that,” Downs pointed out. “So if the legislators had kept up with inflation and not added the voucher program, Southwest people might not have needed the referendum.”

The voucher program affects every school district in the state, Downs says.

Voucher expert says every school in the state is affected

“This money comes off the top of a budgeted line that gets divided up in a formula. So the voucher program actually is part of that whole funding thing which means that it impacts every school district in the state.”

That said, Downs says he wouldn’t be opposed to the voucher program with two caveats.

One, “you keep up with inflation so all teachers have a living middle-class wage and it’s a viable career for people,” he said. Two, “every dollar is accounted for.”

Accountability for every penny of state money

That’s the greatest conundrum of the entire project. Public schools must account for every penny.

“In the voucher program, no dollars are accounted for,” Downs said. “Each district in Indiana is governed by a school board that must publicly report every expense.”

With the religious schools, it’s anyone’s guess where the money is spent, although some have noted large scale building programs that came about after the voucher program was introduced.

“If you get federal dollars for say, special education. Those dollars are supposed to support your existing programs you are legally responsible to provide. It cannot supplant. What that means is you can’t take that money, pay for things you’re already paying for and use that money somewhere else,” Downs explains.

“So if we’re going to look at how these religious organizations or private schools are using tax dollars, it’s important to know we need to be able to see if those dollars are supplanting dollars that are going to something else that taxpayers may not be in favor of.

“The solution is anybody who receives these dollars needs to open up their records and show us how their money is being used like any school district. Every school district has monthly meeting where every penny is reported in an open board meeting and the board has to vote to approve and accept those expenses,” Downs said.

“And that is every expense.”

Ginder agreed.

“If you go back 10 and 20 years, we are not spending the same amount of money that we were on an inflation-based rating, as we used to. Those monies are being shifted to for-profit schools that don’t have the same accountability,” Ginder said.

“That doesn’t mean some of them aren’t doing great things. (I’m a) big fan of Bishop Dwenger and Concordia and Luers and the work those schools have done for years. Those are friends of mine. And I believe in that for our city. But I do think that public schools need our community behind them and to believe in what we are doing.”

Here’s the list of voucher money by school in Allen County: