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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, March 11, 2018 1:00 am


Cost-benefit stats show failures of voucher plan

Seven years into Indiana's experiment with school vouchers, plenty of misconceptions remain about the program, which this year will cost taxpayers $154 million. The latest annual report on the Choice Scholarship program debunks a few myths:

Choice Scholarships allow students to escape “failing” public schools.

Fewer than 1 percent of the 35,458 voucher recipients qualified for the program this year because he or she lives in a public school district with an F-rated school. But 245 students used vouchers to attend Horizon Christian Academy on North Wells Street, one of about a dozen voucher schools earning an F in 2017.

The program saves tax dollars because it is cheaper to reimburse families for private-school tuition than to send students to public school.

That might be the case if every voucher student would have otherwise attended public school. But the percentage of voucher students who never attended a public school grew to 56.5 percent this year, and there is no evidence the families wouldn't have chosen a private school even without a voucher. 

The voucher program serves only low-income Indiana families.

About 20 percent of voucher recipients came from households earning more than $75,000 a year. Four percent of voucher students came from households earning more than $100,000 a year in income. The state's median household income is $52,314 a year.

The voucher program allows families to choose the school that best fits their child.

That point is true if the best fit happens to be a school affiliated with a family's religious preference. The 318 schools accepting vouchers are overwhelmingly faith-based, including Catholic, Lutheran, evangelical Christian, Seventh Day Adventist, Islamic and Jewish schools.

And the child must also fit the school. Some of the faith-based schools limit admission on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.  Instruction in science and social studies can be colored by religious beliefs. As the Huffington Post reported in a joint project with The Journal Gazette last fall, some taxpayer-supported schools use materials that teach only creationism or that homosexuality is immoral and environmentalism is spiritually bankrupt.

School choice will raise academic achievement.

Nearly $13 million in voucher money flowed to schools receiving a D or F on state report cards. The Indiana State Board of Education just last week granted a waiver to Ambassador Christian Academy, a “D” school. The state board agreed a majority of students showed academic growth over the last school year, even though the same board proposed new accountability rules for public schools that will not give credit for academic growth.

“The intent of the Choice Scholarship Report is to provide the best data possible to inform,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “It is important Indiana not only embrace choice, but we embrace quality choice. Such data compilation and review are extremely important for informing family choice and policy development. Increased transparency regarding choice is essential and a responsible practice.”

McCormick and the Indiana Department of Education, a separate entity from the State Board of Education, deserve credit for their efforts in compiling the annual voucher report. Lawmakers and state board members don't seem interested in fiscal and academic oversight of the growing program, but thanks to the department's reporting at least taxpayers can see its cost and who benefits.