INDIANAPOLIS -- A new analysis of Indiana's expansive voucher program shows that students who switch from public to private school don't improve academically -- and sometimes fall behind.
It's the first large-scale study of the academic effects of the Indiana Choice Scholarship program, which has more than 34,000 low- to moderate-income students enrolled at private schools using state taxpayer dollars.
The cost to the state is $146 million a year and growing.
"Generally, we find that voucher students attending private schools experienced similar year-to-year achievement gains in (English language arts) as they did in their public school but substantial annual achievement losses in mathematics," according to the study by R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame.
The findings are currently under review at an academic journal. Berends' research was conducted in cooperation with the Indiana Department of Education, and a reporter filed a freedom of information request for the report before it was completed.
Waddington and Berends studied the standardized test scores of students in grades 3 to 8 who used a voucher to switch to a private school.
They found that voucher students experienced "modest average annual achievement losses" in math, especially in the first two years after leaving public school. But the losses dissipated for those who remained in the program and attended private schools for three or four years.
The duo also found no overall benefits in English language arts, though students in Catholic schools showed small gains.
"By year four, voucher students have higher ELA achievement than their public school peer, though this is only marginally statistically significant," the report said.
The researchers said the findings raise questions about the negative effects, such as the math curriculum, instruction or teacher quality in private schools not being as robust as in public schools.
"At the same time, these results could also point toward issues with changing schools and sectors."
Betsy Wiley, president of the Institute for Quality Education, said studies have long shown that switching schools affects students negatively -- voucher or not.
"It shows that voucher schools are on a learning curve -- integrating into their school model a new type of student," she said. "They may not have been ready for what was coming in the door."
Indeed, the study said students receiving vouchers enter private schools substantially behind their private school peers.
The program started in 2011, and then was focused on providing a way for children stuck in failing public schools to get out. But lawmakers have slowly expanded the program, making it easier for kids to get a voucher without ever attending public school.
The latest annual report on Indiana's voucher program said that in each subsequent year the percentage of Choice students who previously attended an Indiana public school at any time in their educational history has decreased. For the 2016-17 school year, fewer than 46 percent of students participating in the program have a record of previously attending an Indiana public school.
“This study confirms what many have suspected, private school vouchers are not a solution to helping kids succeed in school," said Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith.
"As we see more and more evidence that private school vouchers aren’t benefiting kids, I call on legislators and the governor to undertake an analysis of the financial accountability of the state’s voucher program as well.”
But advocates of the program say it's not just about academics -- it's about a parent's choice to pick the proper educational environment for their child.
Wiley's group pushes for school choice and said those using the study to criticize the program "have never said a positive thing about school choice in their lives."
She said she looks forward to future analysis, and believes it will show more progress in years five, six and beyond. Wiley also noted that the study relies solely on the ISTEP test as an indicator and there are other ways to measure academic performance.