Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In many states, voucher programs are helping Christian families, schools turn corners

GARY, Ind. (BP) -- In the Griffin house, even the dog is polite. At a command from dad Roman Griffin, the golden retriever/chow mix skitters to her cage without a whimper. When a visitor steps in the front door, six children ranging from 5 to 17 -- including twins and a nephew -- sit beneath family photos in a red living room to offer their attention.

Naomi, 8, wears Hello Kitty slippers and a toothy grin. She says she'd like to be a preacher, teacher, fireman, policeman, scientist, and "play all the instruments." Her brother, 11-year-old Jailon, wants to "write fiction stories, mostly for kids and babies," and has learned at school that "anything is possible when you have God in your life."

Last year Naomi, Jailon, and an older brother, Roman Jr., left two public schools to attend Ambassador Christian Academy in Gary, Ind. They did so only because state-provided vouchers paid for the $4,300 in tuition and fees. Their parents, Roman and Sheila, support the household of eight with a combined $35,000 or so they net each year from jobs as a barber and receptionist.

Jailon and Naomi will attend Ambassador again this fall with vouchers. Roman Jr. will use one to attend a Catholic high school. Roman and Sheila Griffin aren't sure if they'll have the money to send their 5-year-old twin girls, ineligible for state vouchers, to Ambassador's kindergarten class this year. "If we could afford it they would have all been in a Christian school from the start," Sheila said.

As Indiana's path-breaking voucher program charts its second year, the Griffin children are among thousands of Hoosier students using state dollars to attend private schools. About 300 private, largely Christian schools in the state are accepting voucher students -- and gaining a financial boost as they arrive. The boost once was rare, but the school choice movement is surging, thanks to Republican statehouse efforts with occasional Democratic support. The impact in Indiana could predict how Christian schools will benefit from new school choice programs in states such as Louisiana.

Inside Ambassador Academy on a recent summer day, day campers drew with crayons in art class and jumped to a pop song in gym class. The school, sponsored by a local nondenominational church, crouches in an area of Gary where most streets host boarded windows and overgrown lawns. Ambassador served about 300 students from pre-K to eighth grade during the last school year. A third of them used vouchers.


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