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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 9:20 am

State choice taking toll on public schools

Jamie Duffy The Journal Gazette

Indiana student achievement will most likely diminish over time because public education is losing money to voucher schools, a national think tank reported today.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago said Indiana’s school choice legislation is “one of the more comprehensive school choice programs in the nation, using public tax dollars to subsidize school choice in three forms: vouchers, state income tax deductions and state income tax credits.”

However, because Indiana’s legislation prohibits the state from regulating curriculum content at any private school that accepts vouchers, taxpayers are subsidizing “education of uncertain quality,” the report states.

Predictably, pro-school choice organizations disagree.

“Our cost of education, based on what we see in the newspaper for the cost of public education, is so much less,” said Mark Muehl, director of the 4,000-student Lutheran Schools Partnership.

Parents and students “appreciate the fact they do have the option of choice,” he said.

Indiana’s school voucher program instituted in 2011-12 is considered the most generous in the nation and has enrolled about 29,000 students with the expectation of that number growing to 50,000, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis. There are about 1.1 million school-age children in the state.

The report states that Indiana has chosen a competition/choice model rather than a capacity building education reform model. That does not compare favorably with nations that have been the most successful at improving student achievement by focusing on a system that reforms the overall education system rather than changes based on competition and choice.

Additionally, independent analysis of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., has not found any statistical evidence that children who used vouchers performed better than children in public schools.

Tosha Salyers, executive director for the pro-school choice Hoosiers for Quality Education, called the report ridiculous.

The report doesn’t take into account data that exist already on student achievement in Indiana, wrote Curt Merlau, deputy director of outreach for the Indianapolis group. Merlau says 83 »percent of private school students passed the ISTEP+ test, compared with 74 percent of public school students in 2013-14.

Merlau also states that the voucher’s fiscal impact has saved Hoosier taxpayers money because they do not cover the entire per-pupil cost that a public school receives.

“The average choice scholarship amount in 2015 was $3,977, resulting in (a cost of) $115 million to educate 29,148 students,” Merlau said.

“If these students had attended a traditional public school, the state would have paid an average of approximately $6,600 per student, resulting in $192 million to educate the very same 29,148 students.”

The report also said white children are benefiting from the voucher program by a 44 »percent greater margin than their black and Hispanic peers and predicted that Indiana’s voucher program will “likely lead to increased racial stratification within Indiana’s K-12 public schools.”

An Indiana Department of Education report this year noted that vouchers for white students increased from 46 »percent in 2011-12 to 61 »percent this year. Black students in the program have decreased from 24 »percent to 14 »percent and Hispanic students from 20 »percent to 17 »percent. 

But Merlau countered that “if you compare overall student population to the voucher student population, white students are underrepresented relative to the overall population, and other races have a higher percentage in the voucher program compared to their portion of the whole population.”

Muehl said public and private schools face challenges. We are trying “to serve kids with the resources that (we’re) given. There are a lot of complications; both public and parochial are having to deal with that.”

Mark GiaQuinta, Fort Wayne Community Schools board president, has said the Indiana voucher program “is a radical departure from the movement that gave birth to the original choice program. They sold it (as) money following the child and it’s not going to cost any more. (It’s the) same dollars. We’re talking about two new separate education systems.” 

jduffy@jg.net