A cautionary tale of vouchers from Indiana

Suzanne Popadin 1187
Advocates for public education gathered at the Indiana Statehouse on Feb 20.
Lucas Llyod/thestatehousefile.com

Advocates for public education from across Indiana gathered at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Feb. 20 to show their support for the state’s public schools.

Donald Trump made a campaign promise to use $20 billion in federal funds to help poor families choose where their children go to school. He proposed creating block grants that states could turn into financial aid, or vouchers, enabling low-income kids to attend private, charter or magnet schools.

President Trump has no first-hand experience with vouchers. But Vice President Mike Pence hails from Indiana, home of the nation’s first statewide voucher program for low-income students, a program that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos played an influential role in building as the former chair of the school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children.

So Indiana’s program may offer a glimpse into the future of education during Trump’s administration.

Indiana’s voucher program began in 2011 and today is one of the country’s largest and most rapidly expanding programs.

Before public schools get any of the education funding in the state budget, voucher money comes off the top, explains Teresa Meredith, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, and with the number of vouchers growing each year, public schools are receiving less and less.

“It’s a slow, bleeding death,” she says.

More than 90 percent of all Indiana children, or more than a million kids, attend public schools. In the 2016–17 school year, the voucher program is serving 34,299 children.

“Since the inception of the voucher program, more than $330 million — that’s $330,548,810.86 to be exact — has been sucked out of our general education funds for less than 10 percent of the kids,” says Phyllis Bush, a retired English teacher and education advocate from Fort Wayne.

Sold as a program for the underprivileged, is it still?

A family of four earning less than $44,955 annually can get a voucher of up to 90 percent of the state funding that its local public school district would get. But since 2013, families earning up to $89,910 per year in 2016–17 have been eligible for vouchers worth 50 percent of the state aid.

“That’s pretty middle class,” says Meredith. “Probably if their child is in private school, they intended to put the child there anyway.”

In the program’s initial years, the vast majority of Indiana students had to attend public school for at least a year before qualifying for vouchers. That requirement was eliminated in 2013 for siblings of students using vouchers, students assigned to F-rated schools and students who have attended kindergarten. The change brought thousands of additional students into the program. And last year, more than half of voucher recipients had never attended Indiana public schools.

State data suggest that taxpayers are helping cover the cost for a school choice that recipients were already making.While overall private school enrollment grew by 12,000 over the past five years, the number of voucher recipients grew by 29,000.

Results of a Brookings Institution study released in late 2015 found that Indiana “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement” in mathematics and no improvement in reading.

Program accountability and lack of transparency are huge issues in Indiana, too.

“There is no oversight whatsoever,” Meredith says. “If we wanted to see data on how many (schools) accept vouchers for students with special needs or children with average grades or students who’ve had discipline issues before, there’s nowhere to look for that data.”

She points out that some religious schools have stipulations for voucher use; for example, students can’t practice another faith. “Those are very discriminatory,” Meredith says.

Plus, there are no records of how private schools spend the voucher money. “The taxpayers have no idea if that money is truly going to educate the student or is going to cover overhead or is going to pay for a steeple,” Meredith says.

Indiana’s program began before Pence’s gubernatorial years, but during his tenure, the cap on the number of vouchers was lifted and income eligibility levels went up.

Bush said the Indiana voucher program has created a two-tier system of haves and have-nots.

“Public schools, by law, have to take all students. It’s ‘Y’all come!’ Private schools can cherry pick who they want and do not have to provide special services,” she said. “The impact here has been quick and poisonous.”

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