Trends and new ideas come to Indiana years after they are welcomed elsewhere, conventional wisdom prescribes. Not so with school vouchers. With limited national research on effectiveness, state lawmakers jumped in with both feet in 2011 and continue to expand the voucher program even as new data show it might harm rather than help students.
The Choice Scholarship Program annual report – quietly released by the Indiana Department of Education late last month – shows voucher participation grew by 4.9 percent this year, while the cost grew by 8.4 percent, topping $146 million for the 2016-17 school year. The percentage of voucher students who have never attended a public school also grew, to 54.6 percent.
The annual report is the first released under Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, who defeated incumbent Glenda Ritz in the GOP’s November landslide.
The report includes a new calculation to determine the hypothetical cost to the state if all 34,299 voucher students attended public schools. The figure offered is $214 million, or $68 million more than the voucher program. But the calculation doesn’t account for the fact that many of those families would have chosen religious schools even if there were no voucher program.
Bloomington resident Steve Hinnefeld, who writes about Indiana education policy at the School Matters blog, points out how voucher participation has changed in the six years since it began. He noted the original voucher bill was pushed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels as a way to help children from poor families attend a private school.
Indeed, 90 percent of students who received vouchers the first year had previously attended a public school. But two years later, the voucher law was expanded to increase the number of eligibility pathways. Voucher enrollment jumped by 47 percent in a single year, with an ever-growing number of students who had never attended public school.
"The program has evolved into a new entitlement: state-funded religious education for middle- and low-income families," Hinnefeld writes, noting that vouchers are increasingly going to students who are white, suburban and not from poor families.
"It’s reasonable to ask if, in some cases, vouchers are a state-funded mechanism for ‘white flight’ from schools that are becoming more diverse," he wrote last week.
If the new report puts some spin on the cost of the program, it also provides information never before included. Each public school district is broken out to show where students living within its boundaries are using a voucher.
Northwest Allen County Schools has no voucher schools within its boundaries, but 256 students who live there attend 25 voucher schools outside the district. East Allen County Schools, with seven voucher schools in the district, has 1,010 students at 38 voucher schools. Southwest Allen County Schools has 263 students at 23 voucher schools, although it has just three voucher schools located in its boundaries.
With 4,680 participants, FWCS has the most voucher students of any district in the state, but that’s largely due to the size of the district and the healthy state of Catholic and Lutheran schools when the voucher law was passed. The Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Lutheran schools were in position to quickly establish Scholarship Granting Organizations, making 50 percent tax credits available to individuals and companies supporting religious education. The funds, distributed as scholarships, make income-eligible families qualified for taxpayer-supported vouchers after one year.
FWCS has 27 voucher schools within its boundaries this year. Voucher students living in the district attend 41 voucher schools. The precise number is shielded under federal education privacy law if there are 10 or fewer students, but there is at least one student living within the FWCS district who receives a voucher to attend the MTI School of Knowledge, an Islamic school in Indianapolis. Another one to 10 Fort Wayne students attend Lakewood Christian School in Auburn.
FWCS was the only Allen County district to see a decrease in the number of voucher students this year, with four fewer students. But the cost for the FWCS voucher students increased substantially, from $19 million to $19.8 million. The total can vary based on the size of the voucher award and the grade level where it is used.
Indiana lawmakers have mostly abandoned the pretense of helping struggling students in favor of an argument that parents should be allowed to choose the best schools for their children. But their failure to hold voucher schools accountable leaves parents without the information they need.
In Fort Wayne, Horizon Christian Academy III earned letter grades of D in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, as enrollment grew from 236 last year to 433 this year. Voucher payments to the Wells Street school increased from $1.14 million last year to $2.43 million this year. At Cornerstone College Prep, voucher funding grew from $631,000 to more than $687,000 this year, even as voucher enrollment fell from 127 students to 122 this year and the school earned an F on its school report card. Its earlier performance results are shielded by student privacy law and no information is available about teacher certification. Only public schools are required to report information about educator evaluations, student performance on college aptitude exams and more.
Transparency is in short supply at voucher schools. Cornerstone’s address is listed as a post office box and its website has been disabled, although a woman answering the phone confirmed the school is at 3501 Harris Road, at Destiny Dome Embassy at Cathedral of Praise Ministries International.
Voucher schools are not subject to public access or open records law; they agree only to "cooperate" in an audit of school records.
When Indiana became a pioneer in so-called school choice, research on the effectiveness of voucher programs was slim, as there were too few subjects to study. Milwaukee was the first major city with a voucher program; Cleveland and Washington, D.C., later adopted programs. Florida had a voucher program for special education students.
Indiana, a follower in almost every other policy area, became the first to approve a statewide voucher program open to all income-eligible students. As large voucher programs developed in Louisiana and Ohio, the data available to study effectiveness have grown.
The results are poor.
• In Ohio, the pro-voucher Fordham Institute commissioned a Northwestern University research team to study the state’s choice program. It found voucher students tend to be more economically advantaged and higher-performing academically when they enter private schools, but they post worse educational results than their peers who stayed behind in public schools.
• In Louisiana, a major study found voucher students – predominantly black, from low-income families and coming from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state – posted disastrous results. Students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school fell to the 26th percentile in a single year.
Results were still well below the starting point in the second year.
• A report released last week by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School concluded this of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Grant Program: "Based on limited and early data, more than half the students using vouchers are performing below average on nationally standardized reading, language, and math tests. In contrast, similar public school students in North Carolina are scoring above the national average."
• Mark Dynarski of the Brookings Institution summarized large-scale research done on the Indiana and Louisiana voucher programs to find public school students who received vouchers scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students who remained in public schools.
"The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large," Dynarski wrote. "In education as in medicine, ‘first, do no harm’ is a powerful guiding principle. A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction."
The damning voucher research has lawmakers elsewhere rethinking school choice.
"I truly believe that everyone wants to make sure that our students have an exceptional educational system and positive educational outcomes," wrote Charles Jeter, a former North Carolina legislator who voted for the voucher bill in that state, in a March 1 op-ed in the Charlotte Observer. "I know that when the General Assembly created the voucher program, members believed it would help create better educational outcomes. The problem is, now we have clear data that show, beyond any doubt, that these voucher programs not only don’t help our students, they actually have worse outcomes."
Indiana lawmakers aren’t backing down, however. The state has almost 20 percent of the nation’s 178,000 voucher students, yet there were multiple bills filed in this legislative session to increase the eligibility pathways for a voucher. The most noxious is attached to the preschool pilot program expansion.
The House version of the bill makes any child who receives an On My Way Preschool grant as a 4-year-old eligible for vouchers for the next 13 years, provided their families meet the generous income eligibility guidelines (up to $91,020 a year for a family of four next year). The estimated cost? Another $10.5 million added annually to the nation’s most costly voucher program.
A powerful school voucher lobby maintains a tight grip on Indiana’s legislative leaders, who in turn maintain a tight grip on the GOP House and Senate caucuses.
But their flawed and oversimplified argument that parents should be able to choose a school for their children falls apart when research shows voucher students falling behind.
Will it matter to legislators? Only if Indiana taxpayers begin to complain about how their money is spent.
Karen Francisco is the editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.