ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Should public school dollars be used to send children to private, even religious schools? That's the big question in a debate over private school vouchers, a debate the NPR Ed team is exploring this week. President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are big fans of vouchers. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., already offer them. The biggest single statewide program belongs to Indiana, and NPR's Cory Turner spent a week there learning about it. He's back in the studio now. Hi, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So how does Indiana's voucher program work?
TURNER: Sure. Well, the simplest way to explain it is that parents who meet certain income requirements get a voucher for most or some of what the state would have spent on their child in a public school, and then they can spend that money in a private school or even a private religious school.
Now, this is key, Ari. Notice I said most or some because in Indiana, they're actually two vouchers. The poorest students qualify for a voucher that's worth roughly 90 percent of what the state would have spent in a public school, but now some middle class families actually qualify for a half voucher.
SHAPIRO: Can any student that gets a voucher enroll in a private school?
TURNER: No. And there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, it's really up to the private school to decide if it wants to accept vouchers at all. They don't have to. Right now in Indiana, roughly 300 schools do, and the vast majority of those schools are religious.
Now, the other really big consideration here is that unlike some voucher programs in other states, private schools in Indiana still retain a lot of freedom to pick and choose students who apply, even though those students have vouchers.
SHAPIRO: So this is public money, no guaranteed access to a private school. What kinds of criteria do the private schools use to decide who they're going to let in?
TURNER: It's a pretty long list, to be honest. Schools can use grade point average. If you don't have a certain grade point average, you can't get in. They can make students take admissions tests. They can reject a student who has a record of behavior issues. Religious schools can require students to abide by, say, a statement of faith.
We even found one school's website where it lists the policy. It says homosexual activity is immoral and that if the home life of the student violates the school standards, well, then the school reserves the right to either refuse admission or discontinue enrollment.
SHAPIRO: So presumably, children of same-sex parents wouldn't be able to enroll in that school, even if they had a voucher.
TURNER: Presumably. You know, interestingly, Indiana stands out because its state voucher law really gives these schools a lot of leeway.
SHAPIRO: So, Cory, you and your team focused on one group of students that's having a hard time using these vouchers and that's students who need special education services.
TURNER: That's right. My colleagues - and I should say I worked hand-in-hand with two member station reporters from Indiana, Peter Balonon-Rosen and Eric Weddle - and we had all heard anecdotally that kids with disabilities, kids who require special education services were really being shut out, were being turned away by some private schools.
And we wanted to understand, number one, if that's really true and number two, if so, why? So, Ari, we met up with a mother just outside of Indianapolis. Her name is Ashley. Producer Acacia Squires and I visited her at home one afternoon. Let's take a listen.
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ACACIA SQUIRES, BYLINE: Hi.
ASHLEY: Come on in.
ASHLEY: Yes, nice to meet you.
TURNER: Cory. Nice to meet you.
So Ashley walked us past stacks of boxes. She and her husband were getting ready to move to a bigger house. Really about the only thing that wasn't packed was this large crescent-shaped couch where her 8-year-old son Isaac was playing.
ISAAC: Hi. What are you doing here, everyone?
TURNER: Isaac is on the autism spectrum and was working with an in-home therapist. You'll hear Isaac in the background as Ashley shares her story.
ASHLEY: We love our school. So without the voucher, we wouldn't have been able to do that. And we're really grateful that we had that choice.
TURNER: When she says our school, Ashley's talking about her two daughters who use vouchers to attend a private school run by their church. When she tried to enroll Isaac there, Ashley says the school's principal was sympathetic...
ASHLEY: But she didn't feel that she could offer Isaac what he needed, and so that was kind of where that stopped.
TURNER: Ashley doesn't seem angry, more sad. She says the school is small, and the voucher might not have covered Isaak's needs. We're not using her last name to give Isaac some privacy and because Ashley feels deeply torn about what happened. After all, the church and school are still very important to her family. Still, she says, knowing Isaac couldn't join his sisters was really hard for her emotionally.
ASHLEY: I think that every special needs parent goes through periods of grieving sometimes when your expectations don't meet the reality, or you don't have the opportunities that you had hoped to have for your child. And it hurt.
TURNER: It turns out, Ashley's story is not unusual. NPR also got a tour of a Catholic school near downtown Indianapolis called Providence Cristo Rey. That's when the school's spokesman, Emil Ekiyor, said public schools are just better equipped to work with special education students because they receive extra money from the state.
EMIL EKIYOR: Well, we don't receive that, so if we take that student, we'll be doing an injustice to that family 'cause we just can't provide all the services they need.
TURNER: Other Indiana private schools say as much on their websites, that they just don't have the money or staff to serve students with some special needs.
WENDY ROBINSON: And it's done with such a loving, soft touch.
TURNER: Wendy Robinson is the public school superintendent in Fort Wayne.
ROBINSON: That we're not discriminating, we're just doing what's best for your family. And we really can't service the needs of those students. That is discrimination.
TURNER: Most students are protected from discrimination by the Americans With Disabilities Act, but private religious schools are exempt from the ADA. Still, the Indiana Department of Education says the state prohibits it.
When NPR pointed out that some private schools are discouraging and even turning away students with disabilities, the department said it has never received a parent complaint of discrimination. Robinson says state data prove it's happening.
ROBINSON: Just look at the records. The gen ed student is in a private parochial school, the special ed student's here.
TURNER: NPR did look at the records. More than 15 percent of Fort Wayne's public school students are considered special education. The average special ed rate at private voucher schools used by Fort Wayne kids is just 6.5 percent. In fact, NPR ran the numbers for every district in the state, and Fort Wayne is the rule, not the exception.
Seventeen percent of public students in Indianapolis received special education. In voucher schools used by Indianapolis students, it's just 7 percent. It's the same story in Evansville and Gary and just about everywhere else. This phenomenon came up earlier this year in a heated Senate hearing. Here's Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, whose son has cerebral palsy.
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MAGGIE HASSAN: Many of us see this as the potential for turning our public schools into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities or other kinds of particular issues.
TURNER: If this is happening in Indiana, it isn't just because some private schools turn away special education students. It's also because many parents know their children are protected by federal law in public schools. Robert Enlow is president and CEO of EdChoice, an Indiana-based group that supports vouchers.
ROBERT ENLOW: The key thing is to make sure that no one gets discriminated based on what they need.
TURNER: But Enlow believes it's unrealistic to expect every school to be able to serve every child. If they are, he says, then Indiana's voucher funding is simply too low.
ENLOW: If we're really talking about equity here, we're actually saying that you should fund a kid based on what they need, not worry about which school it is.
TURNER: But that worries many parents and child advocates, who say even if the money's the same, kids with disabilities still wouldn't have the same federal protections in private schools, and that's not likely to change. Cory Turner, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEXTER'S "CHARDONNAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.