When School Vouchers Don't Offer Much Of A Choice

May 20, 2017
Originally published on May 20, 2017 9:38 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Trump administration is pushing the expansion of school vouchers, which lets some students use public money to attend private schools. Indiana has already invested a lot in its state's voucher program, one of the largest in the country. But that investment often hasn't meant much for rural areas. Peter Balonon-Rosen of Indiana Public Broadcasting takes us to one of those struggling districts.

PETER BALONON-ROSEN, BYLINE: For Dorothy Hoffman, every day is all go, no slow.

DOROTHY HOFFMAN: Five out of 7 of you, at this point, are pretty much able to solve an inequality. That is awesome.

BALONON-ROSEN: Here at Eminence Community Schools, she's special education teacher and school nurse. The school struggled to find someone for the nurse role. So as soon as class wraps...

HOFFMAN: We are doing medications. This is the lunchtime round.

BALONON-ROSEN: Here in the heart of rural Indiana, Eminence Community Schools is the state's fifth-smallest district - about 30 students per grade, the whole district in one building.

HOFFMAN: And you get to know everyone. It seems like everybody's related after a while (laughter).

BALONON-ROSEN: Like much of rural America, the town's identity is tied to its public school. In Eminence, there's the gas station, the bank, the post office and the school. So what's this place have to do with private school vouchers? Almost nothing, and that's the point.

COREY SCOTT: I've never come across one family looking for a voucher for private.

BALONON-ROSEN: Corey Scott is Eminence Community Schools' principal. Few people in this rural area means no private schools, little incentive for new ones. From here, the closest ones are...

SCOTT: You know, 40, 45, 50 minutes.

BALONON-ROSEN: When it comes to school, Indiana's as close to free market as you can get. Think about it like this - imagine a mall, but instead of shops, it's schools, public and private. Students can use state money to buy education wherever - the local public school, a public school in another district or, for many students, using a voucher to attend a private school. So what does private school choice mean for rural students?

SCOTT: Here in Eminence, I don't think that it means a whole lot because it's not easily accessible.

BALONON-ROSEN: Principal Scott says it's not just about access. It's about money. Once you adjust for inflation, Indiana school funding still isn't what it was before the recession. And this year, the state spent $146 million on vouchers. That's $146 million not going to places like Eminence. And three years ago, Eminence officials said the funding situation was so dire the area's single school might have closed if voters hadn't agreed to raise taxes.

SARAH FINNEY: Once the school shuts down, the town shuts down. And that's huge.

BALONON-ROSEN: Sarah Finney heads Eminence's parent-teacher organization and has two sons in the school. She says it's the heart of the community.

FINNEY: We have community events there. People who can't afford to have funerals have funerals there.

BALONON-ROSEN: Without the school, Finney says, there's no need for teachers and families to live here, no reason for the post office and bank to stay, no reason for Eminence to be on the map.

FINNEY: Not only do the children lose their education, all those people lose their jobs. And we lose this town.

BALONON-ROSEN: To be clear, Eminence has lost students, about 1 in 6 over the past five years, mainly to public schools with better sports teams. When an Eminence student leaves, so does about $6,900 in state funding. Again, Principal Corey Scott.

SCOTT: When it takes our funding, you know, I can't pay my teachers what they're worth.

BALONON-ROSEN: And it's harder to keep the doors open. But as state and federal lawmakers push for more private school choice, Scott's worried that that could trickle down and hurt rural schools. And so for those politicians, she has one question.

SCOTT: Then what do you do with the rest of us?

BALONON-ROSEN: Especially the areas whose very existence depend on their public schools. For NPR News, I'm Peter Balonon-Rosen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SPECTRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.