Six years into the nation's largest educational voucher program, most Hoosiers have come to accept school choice as a basic right. Too few have stopped to question whether Indiana is going down the correct path, even as the cost of the program ballooned from $16 million in 2011-12 to $146 million in the last school year.
The Journal Gazette has kept close tabs on the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, so we welcomed the opportunity to work with HuffPost for a deep dive into the subject. Their website draws 170 million unique visitors a month and was the top-rated publisher on Facebook in 2016. On a 25-city “Listen to America” road trip, HuffPost is teaming up with a local partner in each city for an in-depth project. The Indiana voucher program – touted by federal education officials as a national model – was the obvious topic in Fort Wayne, where the effects are considerable.
School choice is not a new idea in Fort Wayne. The community has long benefited from a rich selection of private and parochial schools, serving students alongside and often in collaboration with public schools. Choice also has been a feature within the public schools, with magnet schools and intradistrict transfers allowed in Fort Wayne Community Schools for nearly 30 years.
What's different now is an ever-growing number of school options, supported by Indiana taxpayers, to form a parallel system of schools.
And unlike the “general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all” prescribed in the Indiana Constitution, the parallel system raises issues and questions unaddressed by supporters. Some, raised in the stories reported by HuffPost and The Journal Gazette, form the basis of our editorial board's longstanding concerns:
Transparency: As private schools, voucher schools are not subject to the open records and meetings law public schools must follow. Their boards are not elected, and their budgets are not public information. Taxpayers with questions about the schools' spending are generally out of luck. They are exempt from requirements to publish annual performance reports.
Accountability: While Indiana requires voucher students to participate in the statewide standardized testing program, other accountability measures don't apply, including school personnel reports detailing teacher evaluation information, years of tenure and academic training. Some public charter schools have converted to voucher schools, evading accountability provisions that could have shut them down.
Quality: The voucher program was sold to lawmakers as allowing children to escape “failing” public schools, but FWCS lost three times more students to the voucher program from its A-rated schools than from its D-rated schools in 2014-15. Some voucher schools use textbooks painting widely accepted scientific views as evil. The state does not require voucher schools to hire licensed teachers or administrators.
Access: As the series noted, the choice in school choice lies with the schools, not parents. Voucher schools accept tax dollars, but not all students. Admissions policies favor the academically strong and those without complex special needs. Contrary to promises of a way out for students trapped in poorly performing public schools, nearly 55 percent of voucher students last year never attended a public school.
Cost: Voucher schools do not reduce expenses for public schools by educating some of their students. If 1,000 students within the FWCS boundaries accept vouchers, the district loses $6,500 per student in state funds. Because those students don't all come from a single school or even grade level, FWCS can't cut spending by closing a school or reducing staff. And the $6.5 million loss means less money is available to offer more courses or family resources, or to hire more counselors, nurses or classroom assistants. The loss is real.