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The Journal Gazette

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017 1:00 am

On further review

State superintendent joins call for accountability from voucher plans

A “Morning Edition” report last week offered 13 million NPR listeners results from Indiana's largest-in-the-nation school voucher program:

• A price tag of $146 million a year and growing

• Fewer than 1 percent of voucher students transferred from a public school identified as failing

• Voucher-school enrollment policies that discriminate against special education students

• Little financial transparency for the public dollars flowing to private interests

• Per-pupil education spending, adjusted for inflation, less than 2009 as the state picks up tuition bills for more families who always intended to send their children to religious schools

• Early research finding voucher students show no gains in reading and “statistically significant average annual losses in mathematics” compared with their public school experience

If the results are not encouraging to a national audience, they should be alarming to Indiana taxpayers. Those who dismiss the evidence as an acceptable cost for parental choice or as partisan attacks by teachers' unions ignore growing questions about vouchers, including those from Republican state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who told NPR the voucher program should be reviewed to determine whether it's a wise use of tax dollars.

“You know, we're spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it,” she said. “That is irresponsible.”

The NPR report also gives voice to Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson, who pointed out that public and parochial schools co-existed amicably before the uneven competition created by vouchers. Today, the cost for students within FWCS boundaries attending private schools is $20 million, the most of any school district in the state. 

 “We're not losing kids from our schools (to vouchers),” Robinson said. “We're now just having the state pay for kids who were never going to come here anyway.”

And parents who try to choose private over public for a student with poor grades, a discipline problem or special needs might find school choice belongs to the school, not to parents.

Many voucher schools have enrollment policies that result in special education students, who may require costly services, being turned away.

 “Just look at the records,” Robinson said. “The (general education) student is in a private, parochial school. The special ed student's (in public school).”

More than 15 percent of FWCS' enrollment is classified as special education, compared with 6.5 percent of the voucher enrollment drawing from the district. In Vigo County, the divide is 18.4 percent special ed students in public schools, 1.1 percent in private and parochial schools. 

NPR's scrutiny brings much-needed perspective to a politicallycharged topic. Reporter Cory Turner points out how Indiana voucher supporters have changed their argument for spending tax dollars on private schools since 2011.

Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed the voucher legislation as “social justice” for students trapped in failing schools, but with research showing the effects on academic performance can actually be detrimental to students, the voucher program's architect, Rep. Robert Behning now defends it as a matter of parental choice.

“Parents choose for a variety of reasons. It's not always academics,” the Indianapolis Republican told NPR. “I think the best judgment is parental choice.”

“In other words, for the program's defenders, choice isn't just the vehicle, it's the destination,” Turner suggests.

Observers are weighing Indiana's voucher program in terms of what it might mean if the White House and Congress extend choice policies nationwide. Hoosiers should take another look to see whether the choice destination is justified – a task that can't be done without the review Superintendent McCormick says is needed.

Our editorial board had concerns about the campaign donations McCormick accepted from school-choice advocates. But she's turning out to be a strong and independent voice for all Indiana students. If voucher supporters believe we're better off with the program, they should join her call for an independent study.