The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has an editorial critical of Indiana’s largest-in-the-nation voucher program following an in depth NPR report by Cory Turner (transcript of Morning Edition interview here.)
A couple of months ago, there were new studies showing that vouchers did not improve education. Those studies followed on one that showed Indiana’s weak to non-existent accountability and audit requirements for use of vouchers. (See also, the investigation into waste of state money at Todd Academy.)
The most recent NPR investigation revealed that most Indiana voucher money was funding kids who had never been to public school and never would have gone. Roughly 40% of private school students receive a voucher. 306 of the 313 schools receiving voucher money were religious. “Religious environment/instruction” was the number one reason given for enrolling kids in private schools. Not to put too fine a point on it, Indiana’s vouchers are a subsidy for private religious schools; not “choice” for low-income public school students. This is not happening in a vacuum. This money is coming from our public schools. The state education budget has not recovered from the Great Recession in 2009. “Indiana spends less per pupil, after adjusting for inflation, than it did in 2009. Meanwhile, it’s spending $146 million on private school vouchers this school year.”
Additionally, there is the fact that vouchers are misguided since some kids simply cost more to educate than others. Students are not interchangeable widgets. And, it turns out, those with special education needs are being turned away from private schools. In Fort Wayne, for example, special needs students make up 15% of the general population but only 6.5% of the private school population.
This is key to understanding Indiana’s voucher program. Public schools are required to accept all students, regardless of disability. Voucher schools are not. In many cases, it’s not the students who choose the schools but the schools that choose the students.
Of the NPR study, the Journal Gazette summarizes:
• A price tag of $146 million a year and growing
• Fewer than 1 percent of voucher students transferred from a public school identified as failing
• Voucher-school enrollment policies that discriminate against special education students
• Little financial transparency for the public dollars flowing to private interests
• Per-pupil education spending, adjusted for inflation, less than 2009 as the state picks up tuition bills for more families who always intended to send their children to religious schools
• Early research finding voucher students show no gains in reading and “statistically significant average annual losses in mathematics” compared with their public school experience
And all of this comes even before we get to the impact on the community. As I argued in a Journal Gazette column of my own:
The concept of citizens and the public are closely aligned. Public education isn’t important merely because it serves the public; it is important because it creates the public. The school’s role as a public institution is something that often gets left out or ignored when the subjects of “school choice” and vouchers are brought up. Disregard of the public schools’ role in creating the public is a fundamental flaw in the “money-follows-the-child” model of funding education.
. . .
The more we turn ourselves from members of the public into an atomized collection of individuals, the weaker our communities and democratic institutions become. Dressing up these decisions in the language of “choice” does not change this fact.
There is a note of hope in the Journal Gazette editorial. State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jennifer McCormick said, “You know, we’re spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it. That is irresponsible.” That’s a start at least. But, as my favorite Upton Sinclair quote reminds us, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” I don’t know enough about Superintendent McCormick to cast that aspersion on her, but there are members of the General Assembly of whom I am more skeptical. Judging from how voucher money is being spent, the rhetoric about providing “choice” to low income students at failing public schools seems to have been more in the nature of pretext than a serious policy goal.