There is a considerable change taking place in the Indiana education system. Thousands of students are leaving its public schools for private or homeschool options in the wake of factors from mask mandates and learning loss to critical race theory and social-emotional learning. Dozens of private parenting groups have corroborated and communicated the concerns of Hoosier parents to local school boards—many of whom have begun enacting legally questionable measures to stem these protestations at school board meetings.
The result has been a fleeing from public schools into many private options in Indiana schools in record-setting waves. Of the 319 private schools I obtained enrollment data from for the 21-22 academic year (allowing that these numbers are still moving as of August 6, 2021), 288 have seen growth over the last three years. Of those 288 schools, 154 have seen an enrollment leap from 2020/21 to 2021/22 of at least thirty students. Of the schools I observed, 49 saw enrollment numbers at least 150% the previous year’s roster.
To compare this to averages from 2000 to 2015, it was common for many private or Christian schools under 500 students to fluctuate ~10 students per year. In the last year, a large portion of these schools under 500 students have seen gains from 25 to 50 students.
Several private and Christian schools in suburban areas of Indiana have seen astronomical climbs in student enrollment. In one case, a Christian school in Greenwood, IN recorded 320 students in 2019/20, and has so far registered 551 students for 2021/22. One Christian school in Lafayette, IN recorded 270 students in September of 2020, but has registered 328 as of July 2021. In conversations with admissions staff, I discovered that some of these schools have begun placing new student candidates on “wait lists”, as their maximum capacities have been exceeded.
Area schools (rural, small-town, and “rust belt” township) haven’t seen students leaving their classrooms for private school enrollment, but for homeschool and “microschool” options. After speaking with scores of parents in these locations, I assert this is most likely because there are too few private and Christian options servicing these areas. Hancock County, whose county seat Greenfield only contains a small Catholic option, contains a large parenting Facebook group who has begun meetings instructing over thirty families in homeschooling options.
One sector of Indiana’s private schools has seen a stagnation in enrollment across the board during this trend: Indianapolis’ larger Catholic high schools. Roncalli recorded 1,077 students in 2020, with a gain of only 13 students at the beginning of this academic year. Similarly, Cathedral and Bishop Chatard have seen stagnations or slight losses compared to previous years. In several conversations with parents leaving public options in the Indianapolis area for protestant or secular private schools, many expressed their concern that these larger Catholic schools “act[ed] just like the local public schools”. Indeed, it is this perception that is most likely driving many to alternatives.
In discussions with parents over the last year, I have reasoned that there are five primary factors that have eroded parental trust in Indiana’s public schools, to be coupled with local cases of school boards or administrations causing parents’ concerns. First and foremost, almost every parent I’ve spoken with cited poor rigor and educational mediocrity in Hoosier classrooms. The second issue most commonly mentioned was parents’ concern with mask and virtual mandates; currently mask requirements in Indiana schools vary wildly from district to district.
Critical Race Theory principles taught in classrooms was a close third, a popular topic in dozens of large parenting groups, many who have shared lessons from these local public schools as evidence. Social-Emotional Learning and sexually-explicit content was suggested most often in the central area of the state (especially in the counties surrounding Marion), followed by a lack of support for classroom discipline and management. These issues, perhaps not individually large enough to topple public enrollment numbers, have piled up on top of one another until the dam finally burst.
School boards have done little to calm the fears of parents and teachers. In one case, a Knightstown Intermediate School teacher was called “nuts” by the superintendent at a school board meeting for suggesting that students should return to classrooms. Western Wayne Schools passed a resolution in early 2021 banning parents from speaking at school board meetings unless the topic was pre-approved by both the superintendent and school board president.
To further aid this migration, Indiana’s legislature has expanded its voucher program in the last two years—now providing student vouchers in households with incomes of up to $145,000, whereas before 2021 the upper income limit was $72,000 per household ($41,000 when the legislation first passed in 2011). Families in both low and middle income brackets have begun using this opportunity in earnest to leave public schools.
As official counts aren’t reported to the Indiana Department of Education until September, it can be a tricky business obtaining exact numbers of registered students for both private and public schools. The current counts are subject to change. Furthermore, conversations with parents are often not as simple or clean as pouring over survey data; sifting through the largest issues to identify trends is not a precise art, and I’m not claiming to be a definitive authority on families’ reasons for taking their children where they please.
I am certain that the Indiana education system is beginning to fracture. Concerns many parents have with issues in public schools have been met too often with apathy, derision, and scorn. At a time when parents and teachers look to educational leaders for solutions to problems they see Hoosier students facing, there is a deafening silence at worst and confusing babble at best. Very few have any suggested solutions to get Indiana public schools back to aiding in the building of functional members of society, and as a result, parents are taking their children elsewhere.