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School Voucher Program Begins In Indiana

(CBS) -- This academic year brings something new and a bit controversial to Indiana schools.

Thousands of families are sending their children to private religious institutions with public funds. Indiana's new school voucher system, approved last April and taking effect this fall, set it all in motion.

It's giving lower-income families a choice beyond their neighborhood public school, which might be a low performer. But what some families applaud as a learning opportunity doesn't sit well with public school educators concerned for the future of their own schools.

Ronalyn Vaughn's on Monday dropped off her daughter, Chyna, at her new school: the high-testing St. Thomas More in Munster, Ind. The $3,200 tuition there once seemed beyond reach.

"It was a miracle -- it really was," Vaughn tells CBS 2's Vince Gerasole.

Last year, she lost her job as an engineer. She now qualifies for Indiana's voucher system, which debuted this school year. It allows lower-income families to redirect money from their local public school districts to private schools.

"You should have an opportunity to send a child to a school where they can grow and are challenged and can learn," Vaughn said. 

About 3,300 students statewide are taking advantage of the vouchers, the state of Indiana reports. All but six of the roughly 240 schools in the program approved for the program are religious. The state says that reflects the fact most private Indiana schools are faith-based.

"To be able to bring more kids in who want this education and who will work hard and whose parents will cooperate with us is unbelievably satisfying," St. Thomas More principal Chet Nordyke said.

Religious educators have praise for the voucher system, but critics, including the Indiana Teachers Association, say it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. They are challenging it in the courts as a subsidy for religious schools. 

"The state standards tell us we must teach this. At Thomas More we go above the state standards," Nordyke said.

Especially in tight times, families who want that extra advantage for their kids say the ability to tap into their educational tax dollars is only fair.

Vouchers this year will take away $3 million, or roughly 1 percent from  the Indiana's public school budget. That worries many in  public education. 

 Voucher enrollment is limited to 7,500 students this year, but by 2013 that cap will be lifted completely.

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