SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Struggling Indiana public school districts are buying billboard space, airing radio ads and even sending principals door-to-door in an unusual marketing campaign aimed at persuading parents not to move their children to private schools as the nation's largest voucher program doubles in size.
The promotional efforts are an attempt to prevent the kind of student exodus that administrators have long feared might result from allowing students to attend private school using public money. If a large number of families abandon local districts, millions of dollars could be drained from the state's public education system.
"If we don't tell people the great things that are happening in our schools, no one else will, especially not now," said Renee Albright, a teacher in Fort Wayne. "There are private enterprises that stand to benefit if they can portray us as failed schools."
The Indiana voucher program, passed by the Legislature in 2011, is the biggest test yet of an idea sought for years by conservative Republicans, who say it offers families more choices and gives public schools greater incentive to improve.
But school officials worry about the potential loss of thousands of students, especially those from the middle class, and the state money that comes with them.
Unlike voucher programs in other states that are limited to poor families and failing school districts, the Indiana subsidies are open to a much broader range of people, including parents with a household income up to nearly $64,000 for a family of four. The median income for an Indiana family of four was just over $67,000 in 2010, making many of the state's nearly 1 million public school students eligible for vouchers.
Last year, the effect of the new vouchers was limited because the law passed just four months before the start of school, and many parents were still unfamiliar with the program. But this year, more than 8,000 students have already applied for vouchers, and there is room for up to 15,000. The number of participants could grow even more next year, when the ceiling on the number of vouchers is eliminated.
Leaders of poor urban schools, which suffered the most defections last year, are especially worried. A district loses $5,300 to $8,400 for each student who leaves.
After 113 of its students departed for private schools last year, the Evansville Vanderburgh district spent $5,700 to erect two billboards and place ads at bus stops to tout the district's theme of "Bringing Learning to Life."
In Fort Wayne, public schools lost 392 students to vouchers last year, the most in the state. That cost the district more than $2.6 million in state aid and led officials to cut 10 art, music and physical education teaching positions at elementary schools.
Principals have gone door to door in neighborhoods to make their case for the city's public schools, touting improved test scores and a 90 percent graduation rate. The district has spent $32,000 on a marketing campaign titled "Their stories. Your school. Get back to school at FWCS."
A radio ad features South Side High School salutatorian Will Coursen-Carr, a National Honor Society member and pitcher who led the Archers to a 20-8 record and their first sectional title. He plans to attend Indiana University and become a teacher.
"Fort Wayne Community Schools is full of stories like Will's," the ad says.
Albright, who teaches ethics, philosophy, psychology and history at South Side, wishes the advertising weren't necessary.
"We're fighting a fight we shouldn't have to," she said. But she understands the competitive climate schools face.
Oscar Dowdell-Underwood Jr., headmaster of Cornerstone Christian College Preparatory Day and High School in Fort Wayne, isn't sympathetic. He said the voucher program forces public schools to realize that every student matters.
His school added 94 voucher students last year, the second most in the state, which helped boost enrollment from 26 students in 2010-2011 to 129. This fall, Cornerstone will have an overall enrollment of 158, including 115 voucher students.
Dowdell-Underwood said he's "glad public education is finally getting it."
"It's too bad they have to spend money on an advertising campaign in order to get the word out to kids and to parents," he said.
No one knows yet whether the marketing is paying off. Indiana schools won't count students until mid-September.
The state's largest district, in Indianapolis, serves some of Indiana's most disadvantaged students and has long struggled with low test scores. It lost 356 students to vouchers last year, and others to public charter schools.
School staff members have gone to the homes of students who switched to private schools last year or who dropped out and asked them to come back. The district is touting its magnet schools, teaching methods that include Montessori and Reggio and a performing arts and visual arts school.
Ramon Batts, director of an alternative program at Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, estimates 10 percent to 20 percent of the voucher parents he has talked to showed an interest in returning to public school.
Philip and Cheresa Covington haven't been swayed. They pulled their seventh-grader out of public school because his language-immersion program promised more than it delivered. The Indianapolis schools are underfunded and understaffed, Cheresa Covington said, and the teachers "horribly, horribly overworked."
This year, their son will use a voucher worth $4,500 at a small private school in downtown Indianapolis called the Todd Academy. Annual tuition is $9,850.
Other parents, though, are willing to stay put.
Mikila Cook took her now 13-year-old daughter, Bailey, out of Fort Wayne schools three years ago to attend a charter school, thinking she would be in a smaller class and get more attention. After five weeks, she found her daughter was in a bigger classroom. So she moved her back to public school.
Cook won't be seeking any private school vouchers for her kids.
"I wouldn't take them out of Fort Wayne Community Schools for any reason at this point," Cook said. "I feel very confident in their ability to educate my children."