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The Journal Gazette

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Saturday, January 23, 2016 10:10 pm

Do vouchers work? Real data needed, not spin

Indiana’s school voucher supporters are bringing in the star power to mark National School Choice Week this week.

TV personality Campbell Brown is the keynote speaker for the Quality Education Celebration at the Statehouse on Monday, an annual event to rally expansion of the nation’s most expansive private-school voucher program. No doubt, Brown and others will proclaim the Indiana program a tremendous success.

But no research or data exist to back the claim. Though the number of voucher recipients grew by 13 percent this school year, there is no evidence tax dollars are being spent effectively.

Instead of approving two voucher expansion bills, lawmakers should instead call for a comprehensive and independent study of Indiana’s five-year-old entitlement program. Do they truly believe support of private schools is an effective use of tax dollars, or do they fear that data on Indiana’s program will reveal the same results as voucher evaluations elsewhere?

"No voucher study anywhere has ever shown academic gains; not in Milwaukee, not in D.C., not in Cleveland," said education historian Diane Ravitch in an email.

Nor does the newest study, she notes, an evaluation by the National Bureau of Economic Research of first-year evidence from Louisiana’s voucher program. Comparing academic outcomes of students who won a seat in the state’s voucher lottery with those of students who did not, the Harvard-based researchers found that "(voucher) participation substantially reduces academic achievement."

"The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children," according to the study from the respected and nonpartisan research group.

With no evidence of improved academic performance, look for the Friedman Foundation, the muscle behind Indiana’s voucher program, to instead push results of its own poll at Monday’s rally. It claims that Hoosiers show widespread support for school choice and believe Indiana is on "the wrong track" for education under Glenda Ritz, the Democratic superintendent of public instruction.

Brown, a former NBC anchor and CNN host, is co-founder of The Seventy Four. By its own description, the organization is a "nonpartisan news site covering education in America." Its financial supporters are primarily groups working to stunt the influence of teacher unions.

Ravitch, a former official with the George H.W. Bush administration, questions Brown’s role in the so-called education reform movement, and notes that the news coverage created by her media outlet supports education privatization.

"She is an ideologue who knows nothing about research and evidence," Ravitch wrote, "She has no knowledge or respect for the role of public education in a democracy and zero understanding of the danger of privatizing basic public services."

Preliminary figures from Ritz’s Department of Education show 32,955 Indiana students using a voucher this year. The final cost is undetermined until the enrollment number is final, but it’s likely to show Indiana taxpayers spending about $130 million on private schooling this year.

Is the cost justified? To know, Hoosiers need an independent study.