More than 50 Elkhart County students are starting the school year at a new school with help from the Indiana Choice Scholarship program.
The program offers vouchers in varying amounts to qualified families to attend private schools approved by the program.
The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) is accepting vouchers through mid-September and, according to its most recent data, still has many to distribute.
The most recent data available from the IDOE, says that as of Aug. 3, 52 Elkhart County students had been accepted to receive vouchers and attend private schools.
Elkhart Community Schools is losing the most students to vouchers, with 18 leaving the school district as of Aug. 3, according to the IDOE.
Middlebury and Goshen had each lost 11 students by that date. Five had left Wa-Nee, while Fairfield and Concord each lost three. Baugo Community Schools lost one student.
More than 2,800 students statewide signed up for the Choice Scholarship program, the nation's largest first-year school choice program, by Aug. 3, according to the IDOE, which leaves many still available before the state reaches its limit of 7,500 students in the program.
Six Elkhart County schools were accepted by the state and are participating in the program: Bethany Christian Schools, Clinton Christian School, Elkhart Christian Academy, St. Thomas the Apostle School, St. Vincent de Paul School and St. John the Evangelist Catholic School.
The IDOE did not release numbers for where voucher students were attending, but most local private school officials shared how many were enrolled at their schools.
Bethany Christian in Goshen has the largest number of voucher students with 26, according to Janice Eigsti-Miller, Bethany's business manager. Some were from outside Elkhart County.
Elkhart Christian Academy had 16 enrolled as of Wednesday, according to Sue Snyder, advancement assistant, and three more students were in the application process.
The program has definitely caused excitement at Elkhart Christian, she said.
The school has received between 65 and 75 inquiries, she said, and enrolled 16 as of Wednesday, but three more students were in the application process.
Chris Kolakovich, principal at St. Thomas the Apostle School, said that the school gained 12 students thanks to vouchers and he hoped to add to that number before the application cut-off date.
St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Goshen added nine students with vouchers this year and has a few more applications processing, Principal Amy Weidner said.
Clinton Christian Principal Gail Schrock said that the school did not currently have any voucher students.
Administrators at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School did not return requests for an interview.
Private school officials who did respond said that they were excited to be a part of a program that offers more choices to parents and to offer an opportunity to students to attend their schools who otherwise would not be able to.
Voucher amounts are determined based on a family's income, the tuition and fees at the eligible school and the public school district that the family lives in. If the family of a high school student living in the Middlebury school district included four people and makes less than $40,820 annually, that student would receive a voucher worth $4,424.50 or the full tuition of the school, if it's less than $4,424.50. A high school student from a family of four living in the Elkhart school district making an income of less than $40,820 would receive a voucher for $5,465.60 or the cost of tuition, if it is less than that amount. The absolute maximum amount students in grade 1 through 8 can receive is $4,500.
Receiving money from the state to attend private schools, though, means that public schools miss out on money from the state for having those students enrolled.
Doug Hasler, business manager for Elkhart Community Schools, and Bruce Stahly, superintendent of Goshen Community Schools, both said it's still too early to try to figure out the impact of the Choice Scholarship program on their districts.
The IDOE determines how much money the schools receive per student this year based on schools' Sept. 16 attendance.
Looking at current numbers, though, Stahly said that he didn't think Goshen would be declining in enrollment and Hasler said that Elkhart was holding steady with numbers from this time last year.
"It really puts us between a rock and a hard place," Hasler said, though. If 18 is the final number of students the corporation would lose, Elkhart would not only lose out on receiving funding from the state for those 18, but also not be able to cut down on any expenses. Those 18 students would be taken from schools and grades across the corporation, he explained, and not enable Elkhart to reduce resources at any school, such as reducing the number of teachers, for example.
Tony Bennett, state superintendent of public instruction, explained to the Elkhart Rotary Club earlier last week that a reason he backs the Choice Scholarship program is because it "puts a little competitive pressure" on schools.
"It says to us, people will have choice, people will exercise their choices," he said. "So now public schools get better, private schools get better and guess who wins - our children."
Families can continue to apply for vouchers until Sept. 16. Applications should be submitted to the IDOE by the school the student wants to attend.
For more details about the Choice Scholarship program, visit www/doe.in.gov/schoolchoice.