The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an advocacy group based in Indianapolis, estimates that about 212,000 students are using vouchers or tax scholarship programs through more than 30 such programs, 17 of which provide vouchers. The group said that total has risen from 36,000 students in 2000.
Teresa Meredith, an elementary school teacher in Shelbyville, Ind., and an officer in the Indiana State Teachers Association who is the lead plaintiff to the state suit, said she's not opposed to private schools. But when parents choose to send their kids to one, she said, they are making the choice to pay for it.
"If they're not happy with their local public school, then they need to choose to make their local public school better, not run from it," said Meredith, a mother of four.
Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at New York University who specializes in urban education policy, said even with a voucher, many students still cannot afford or get into or find transportation to more exclusive private schools.
"As a strategy for creating more integrated schools, it hasn't shown that it works at all. So we have to ask ourselves, what is really the goal here?" Noguera said. "If the goal is to increase access to high quality schools, there's no research supporting it. But, there is clear evidence that as you lose children from the public schools, you undermine the fiscal support for public education."
But Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat, says too many low-income kids stuck in persistently failing schools in some of the neighborhoods he represents in Philadelphia go to unsafe schools and can't wait for a change. He calls the private boarding school he attended in high school on a private scholarship a "lifesaver," and he's advocating for legislation that would create a voucher program. He said even if a public voucher wouldn't cover all the tuition, private scholarships can help fill the void.
"I believe a child should not be required to go to a place like that," Williams said of low-performing schools. "They should have options just like anybody else in America does and it will serve us better in the long run as opposed to requiring them to go to a place that we know they don't get the rudimentary skills."
Whether to offer school vouchers is one of the most contentious issues in education. Some of the first programs were rolled out in the 1990s in Milwaukee and Cleveland, although the debate goes back decades and President Richard Nixon was a fan of vouchers, according to the Center on Education Policy, which advocates for more effective public schools. Those on both sides of the issue have won court victories and cite research to back up their cause.
In recent years, the message among voucher supporters has shifted to one where it's not just about helping poor students, but empowering parents with choice valued and their satisfaction emphasized, said Alexandra Usher, a senior research assistant at the center.
With state budgets facing in recent years a "fiscal buzz saw" and education frequently about half a state's budget, there's a recognition that better value is needed, said Robert Enlow, the president of the Friedman Foundation.
"People are beginning to see that allowing families the ability to choose is giving them access to quality education they would not otherwise have had," Enlow said.
Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of schools in the District of Columbia who founded the advocacy group StudentsFirst, believes vouchers should be made available only to low-income students assigned to low performing schools, and that private schools must show they are effective. She said doesn't support the idea that "every kid just has a backpack with their money in it" to go anywhere because she has not seen an economic model where that is sustainable.
"I very much feel our time and effort and resources should be focused on, as it pertains to vouchers, on what we're going to do with low-income children who otherwise would be trapped in nonperforming schools," Rhee said.