A religious-based education is often a reason cited by parents to take part in Indiana’s voucher program. But critics say private schools in the program paid for with public funds can discriminate against students in their admission policies. Wochit

At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”

At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.

Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.

Those admissions standards reflect arguably the most controversial aspect of Indiana’s voucher program, also known as school choice scholarships. The GOP-driven program allows religious schools to receive public funds. At the same time, those private schools can reject students who don’t affirm certain religious precepts — and impose religious requirements on those who are accepted.

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Opponents of the program say it amounts to the state allowing private schools to discriminate. But advocates point to an Indiana Supreme Court ruling that determined the state’s voucher program to be constitutional. They say vouchers give low- to middle-income families access to their tax dollars to place their child in the best situation for them — and that may involve a faith-based education.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld Ohio’s voucher program. Vouchers are “neutral” on religion, the 2002 ruling said, because families have a choice in what type of school their children attend, without any greater incentive to go to religious schools.

At Colonial Christian, which last year received $340,000 in state dollars, the school is “very clear about who we are up front with every family,” said Kevin Suiter, the school’s administrator.

The school’s website reflects that transparency, where along with the same-sex ban, it states families must “faithfully attend” the school’s parent church, Colonial Hills Baptist Church, or a like-minded congregation.

“We’ve been advised on legal grounds if that is our Biblical conviction we need to communicate that with folks before they go through the admissions process,” Suiter said.

Suiter sees the voucher program as a use of the “people’s money.” Families who receive vouchers are taxpayers and part of that money goes toward education. Now, those tax dollars can follow students to their chosen school, and he’s seen families benefit whose income limitations previously meant they homeschooled for a Christian education.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by EdChoice, families cited a religious environment as their most important reason for using a voucher. Other reasons included better academics and character instruction.

Indianapolis parent Joan Woods, for example, sought out a school where her daughter could openly express her faith — “not one that was going to be bent on keeping that out of public education,” Woods said.

As a toddler, Savannah was adding “God bless you” when she said goodbye. Now 11, she prays when she passes car accidents and has used prayer to confront and eventually befriend bullies, her mother said.

Heritage Christian School has helped Savannah thrive academically and grow in her faith as well, Woods said. Students attend chapel weekly, and even the bus drivers pray over the children.

Before the voucher program started, Savannah was attending the school with the help of a tax-credit scholarship. The family was living in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. And so learning that Savannah qualified for a voucher, Woods said, was a relief.

“I was spending more on education than I was on my apartment to live,” she said.

An overwhelming majority of schools participating in Indiana’s voucher program are religious, while prominent secular schools, such as Park Tudor and International School of Indiana, don’t participate. Schools that do accept vouchers told IndyStar the program has helped them increase diversity in their schools, but they haven’t softened their admissions standards.

Schools that benefit from public funds and require prospective students to meet certain standards amounts to “blatant discrimination,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and a plaintiff in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully attempted to block the program. In 2013, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that tax dollars could be used to finance private-school tuition.

When the program was contested, some schools kept quiet over their admissions rules, Meredith argued.

“If they’re taking a voucher, they need to be responsible to the public, accountable to the public. They need to lay out how a student was admitted and lay out funding,” Meredith said. The schools being allowed to pick and choose feeds the discrimination argument, she said.

While they can establish certain standards, choice schools are prohibited from discriminating in admissions based on race, color, national origin or disability, Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker said.

Private schools do not have to report to the state how many voucher students they choose not to admit or the reasons for admission denials.

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said private schools are “mission-centric” programs.

“The whole idea of choice in general is helping families and students find that right fit,” Elcesser said. And admissions standards, he said, are part of it. Overall, the voucher program boasts an 80 percent retention rate from year to year.

The number of voucher students at Cathedral High School has grown from 18 to nearly 250. Along the way, the school has has maintained a “need-blind” admissions strategy, meaning school leaders don’t consider a family’s financial position when they’re deciding whether to admit a student, said Duane Emery, vice president for enrollment management.

“The one really nice thing about the choice scholarship program and the state of Indiana, it does allow schools to apply their normal admissions practices, and so that keeps the process really pure in that we can make decisions based on student performance and fit,” Emery said.

Aside from religious criteria, voucher schools place a number of academic requirements on prospective students, including reviewing past ISTEP scores and requiring good grades.

At Bethesda Christian, if a family doesn’t attend church, the school asks them to do so if they want to send their child there.

“If they’re just really not attending church and have no need for it or no reason behind it, we kind of wonder why they’re seeking out a Christian education,” said Erin Beiriger, the school’s admissions director, especially one that places a deep emphasis on the Bible like Bethesda does.

But that’s a rare circumstance, she said, because most families have a church home when they want to enroll in the school.

“We limit the amount of students that can come in here with a voucher,” Beiriger said. “We feel like parents seeking out discipleship schools are really seeking out a specific partnership with our school and are looking for intensive Bible integration in all subjects.”

One day, she hopes Indiana extends choice out to all students regardless of income level.

However, if there comes a time where Indiana puts restrictions on the program that could affect religious freedom, Colonial Christian would need to re-evaluate its participation, said Suiter.

If the state ever required voucher schools to teach evolution, Indiana would have at least one less participant, he said.

Colonial, he said, likely would drop out.

IndyStar reporter Tim Evans contributed to this story.

This story is the final installment in a four-part IndyStar investigative series, Choice & Consequences, examining Indiana’s school voucher program.