A majority of parents surveyed about their children's experience in Indiana's School Choice Scholarship Program indicated they are satisfied with their new schools and that religious instruction was the No. 1 factor in why they chose a particular school, according to a report released by one of the voucher program's biggest supporters.
The Why Parents Choose report was developed by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which advocates for charter schools and voucher programs, and sponsored by The Dekko Foundation, which promotes economic freedom.
The survey reflects the views of more than 2,000 private school parents; a little more than half of them — 1,185 — have children in Indiana's voucher and tax credit scholarship program.
But public school advocates like Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education argue that tax dollars should not be used to subsidize religious instruction.
Indiana's voucher program — the largest in the United States — has grown exponentially since it was established in 2011 with 3,911 students. During the 2015-16 school year, 32,686 students participated in the program, which provides funds for students to use toward tuition at the private school of their choice.
Parents in the survey revealed that they had little problem finding a suitable private school that participates in the program.
More than half — 51 percent — of voucher participants didn't attend a previous school. About 25 percent of students previously enrolled in traditional public schools with 20 percent at another private school.
Smith, a retired educator, said the program has obscured what was supposed to be its original intent — to help kids in failing school districts who couldn't afford to attend public schools.
"In 2013, there was a major expansion to allow a lot of students who had never been in public schools to get a voucher, which really goes against the original intent of the program," Smith said. "Now I'm a strong Christian, but I always thought that schools should be separate from religious instruction."
The main reason that parents decided to leave their previous school was the school lacked religious environment/instruction (31 percent), followed by academic quality (29 percent) and lack of morals/character/values instruction (27 percent), according to the survey.
These same factors were primary concerns for parents when deciding on a private school for their children. The most important quality for parents in choosing their current private school was religious environment and instruction (39 percent), according to the survey. It was followed by better academic environment (20 percent) and a school's morals, values and character instruction (19 percent).
Kemberly Markham, assistant superintendent for Diocese of Gary schools, said the survey results dovetail with recent parent surveys.
"From our surveys, most parents decide to choose our schools in order for their children to pursue Catholic religious education," she said. "Academics is a strong reason as well."
The number of voucher students attending diocese schools have increased considerably since the first year, Markham said. During the 2015-16 school year, the Diocese of Gary had 1,711 students who receive $7.6 million in vouchers at Lake and Porter County schools, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.
Hammond's St. Casimir School has the most recipients at 308, while Bishop Noll Institute has 260 students receiving vouchers.
"I would say we have seen a lot of growth through the choice programs because we've been able to help them qualify for the program due to financial reasons, and there are now some additional pathways, such as special education, and if they already have a sibling at the school, that they can take advantage of," Markham said.
The survey, which was released last month, followed up with voucher parents who responded to a Friedman Foundation survey in 2013, as well as expanding the pool of respondents to include all private school parents in Indiana. The survey stressed that the results were not the result of random sampling.
The Indiana State Teachers Association and other groups — including current State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz — led a legal challenge against the program in 2012, saying that it amounted to public funding of religious schools, but it was rejected by the Indiana Supreme Court.
Smith said the program is hurting the public schools. Money for school vouchers is diverted from the state's public school funds.
In 2015-16, students residing in Hammond received more than $3.5 million in choice scholarships, followed by Gary with $3.4 million, East Chicago with $1.7 million and Merrillville with $1.25 million, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.
"It's not surprising that there would be an advocacy group doing a survey that comes out in their favor," Smith said. "They're notorious for that. We're not convinced there's the support out there for the program."
The 2015 Hoosier Survey, a poll conducted by Ball State University, showed that 58 percent of Hoosiers prefer their tax dollars go to public schools with 39 percent supporting vouchers for private schools and charters. In that poll, 68 percent said they were very or somewhat satisfied with public schools.
"The results are clear: Indiana parents — the people who actually navigate the system and make choices for their families — are overwhelmingly satisfied with the state's programs, and they find them easy to use," said Friedman Foundation president and CEO Robert C. Enlow in a statement. "That's particularly important because critics often allege that parents won't be able to figure out how to choose. We know that's not true, and we know that once they choose, they become more engaged in their schools and their communities."
About 76 percent to 81 percent of children who entered the program in 2011-12 have stayed with the program, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Those who left mentioned no longer qualifying, moving out of state or no longer having children in the program, problems with teachers or administrators, or the school not having the next grade that their child was matriculating into, according to the Friedman Foundations survey.
Of those that left the program, a little more than half (54 percent) returned to neighborhood public schools or public charter schools.