Christian Academy of Madison fifth-grader Madeline Felts is able to attend the school because of partial funding through the Indiana Choice Scholarship program. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
Christian Academy of Madison fifth-grader Madeline Felts is able to attend the school because of partial funding through the Indiana Choice Scholarship program. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
When Molly McGarry stopped attending private school, she thought her parents were making a mistake. She attended Pope John XXIII Elementary and Shawe Memorial High School until her parents decided to move her to a public school.

"Mainly, I guess it was kind of my parents' choice, but they wanted to give me the opportunity with different classes and different people," McGarry said. "I wasn't really open to it, because I didn't know anyone. But, as soon as I got here I felt so welcome. There's so many different people and opportunities."

McGarry is now an 18-year-old senior at Madison Consolidated High School. She has been on the girls' soccer and tennis teams, was a member of the Academic Super Bowl science team and is a member of the National Honors Society.

She's deciding between attending Purdue University or Butler University to study pharmaceutical science.

She said that she and her parents are happy with the opportunity public schools have been able to provide for her, but not every parent feels the same way.

Kasey and Dan Felts have three children, two of whom are in private schools. Their youngest, 5-year-old Sawyer, is still in kindergarten, but they hope to have him enrolled in private school as soon as possible.

"We just wanted a more wholesome education for our children. We weren't really pleased with public schools. We went to Rykers' Ridge (Elementary School), there was a lot of turnover and a lot of changes," Kasey Felts said. "A lot of teachers have been there a long time and they're frustrated. The government has taken the love of learning and teaching out of the public school system. Everything is all about test scores."

The Felts' other children, 11-year-old Madeline and 8-year-old Stella, both attend the Christian Academy of Madison and are able to do so because of the School Choice Scholarship that was first made available in 2011 under former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

"We could not afford to put three children through private school without it," she said. "We feel like we're taxpayers, we pay our taxes. If we choose to send children to private school, the tax money should follow them."

The school voucher program is under the spotlight again after Gov. Mike Pence put his support behind House Bill 1003, which, if passed, would significantly increase the reach school vouchers have in Indiana.

The Indiana House Education Committee approved House Bill 1003 with a 9-3 vote down party lines to send the measure to the House of Representatives.

Voucher program changes

As it stands now, to qualify for school vouchers in Indiana, students have to attend public school for two semesters, qualify for free or reduced lunches and meet certain household income guidelines.

For example, a family of four can make up to $42,643 a year to have 90 percent of private-school tuition covered by vouchers, or $63,964 a year to have 50 percent of tuition covered.

It would also allow current private-school students from four-family member households that earn $63,964 to qualify for Indiana's two-year-old voucher program and keep those vouchers even if their families' annual income grows as high as $128,000.

Proposed changes would expand eligibility so families that earn up to three times the amount required to qualify for free or reduced lunch would qualify for school vouchers. It also would eliminate the one-year waiting period for students and financial restrictions to military families, foster care children, special education students and students whose siblings already use the tax credit.

Anna Gosman, administrator at Christian Academy of Madison, was asked by School Choice Indiana to voice her support for the bill in front of the House Education Committee, specifically over the elimination of household income guidelines for families with special needs children.

"One of the concerns I believe our opponents have are, are private schools even accepting those students? So, they wanted me to speak on behalf of those at our school who do have special needs," Gosman said. "I talked about the fact that we have 47 students that are currently on the School Choice scholarship and of those 47, six have ISPs (individual service plans)."

Gosman said a lot of her students using school vouchers have specific learning needs or learning conditions that could cause problems.

"We are welcoming them, of course. I'm not foolish enough to think that we can help every student, but we welcome the ones that we can," Gosman said.

Many Democrats and those in opposition to the bill, including Dr. Ginger Studebaker-Bolinger, superintendent of Madison Consolidated Schools, argue that the bill is attempting to subsidize private education.

"If we really want to do vouchers, why not just give everybody a voucher?" Bolinger said. "The bigger question with this bill is do we want to continue to fund public schools? I mean, that's the big question and it appears that we don't."

"I think that it's disappointing because we know as educators and as citizens that the great equalizer in our society has always been education. Always."

Phil Kahn, president of the Prince of Peace Schools, said that the competition that is a result of school choice and school vouchers is going to benefit students.

"It's only going to make each school better and perform better academically," Kahn said. "We feel like we've always had to keep a high level of academics and safety and everything to attract students for families to pay a tuition. But now, with the choice of going anywhere you want and the voucher program, everybody's looking to market their schools in a better way."

Prince of Peace started with five voucher students in 2011 and now has more than 30. Kahn said that at least 15 of those students were already enrolled at the schools when their parents found out they were eligible for the school voucher scholarship.

"Our philosophy was to start slow. We didn't want to jump in and have 100 new students and have it go away all of a sudden," Kahn said.

Though Prince of Peace was cautious in the beginning, the program could still go away. The Indiana Supreme Court is waiting to rule on a case - Meredith v. Daniels - that challenged the constitutionality of the 2011 school voucher bill.

The court will decide whether the Indiana Constitution permits the state to offer need-based scholarships to students and families to allow them to attend private schools or public schools that charge transfer tuition and if those scholarships can be used at religious institutions.

According to Americans United, the organization that filed a brief with the Indiana Court of Appeals, of the 259 private schools participating in the school voucher program, all but six are religious. And of those 253 religious schools, all but two are Christian.

Steve Gookins, former interim superintendent of Madison Consolidate Schools, testified before the House Education Committee in opposition to the bill, in part because it is in front of the Supreme Court.

"If we enact this and court says it's not constitutional, then we've deprived other programs that need funding," Gookins said. "We started a process to see if it meets the constitutional test. I think it's kind of jumping the gun."

The Indiana Supreme Court will rule on Meredith v. Daniels at a later date. House Bill 1003 is set to go before the House Ways and Means Committee Monday at 9 a.m.