Indiana’ expansive – and expensive – first-year voucher program

Indiana taxpayers are paying $16.2 million this year for a voucher program that sends children to private schools, almost all of them religious schools, according to data released last week by the Indiana Department of Education.

That’s not an add-on cost for taxpayers. Rather the funding is being taken away from public schools and given to private schools. Under the Indiana program, parents who make up to 277 percent of the federal poverty level, and who transfer their kids from public to private schools, qualify for vouchers.

The Department of Education boasted in a news release that Indiana has the “most expansive first year voucher program in the country,” with more than 250 schools and almost 4,000 students participating – “a diverse and robust cross-section of families and schools in every region of Indiana.”

It’s a stretch, though, to suggest the schools represent anything close to the state’s diversity. Only about five are non-religious schools. A rough count suggests that about 180 are Catholic schools, 20 are Lutheran schools and most of the rest are nondenominational or Evangelical Christian schools – some of which use textbooks infused with political and religious extremism.

It’s also doubtful that vouchers are greatly expanding choice for most parents. If you live in South Bend, you have your choice of a dozen Catholic schools, but nothing else. Gary, one of the largest cities in the state and surely one where educational alternatives would be welcome, has exactly one voucher school, Ambassador Christian Academy. And it’s doing a bang-up business: It’s serving 110 voucher students and taking in nearly $500,000 in public dollars, both tops in the state.

In Marion County, of 473 students who are receiving vouchers, it appeared that only one was attending a non-religious school, the Indianapolis Star reported. Many rural areas and small towns, not surprisingly, don’t have any voucher schools nearby.

There’s a reasonable argument that the voucher program violates the Indiana constitution; a lawsuit challenging the program is slowing making its way through the courts. But even if it doesn’t, there’s reason to question the policy of giving public money to private entities, few strings attached.

Private schools that accept vouchers have to administer state ISTEP-Plus exams to their students and report the results. But unlike public schools, they don’t have to share detailed information about how they spend money and how much or how little they pay teachers and administrators. They are free to discriminate in admissions on the basis of religion, disability status, or simply because a student isn’t a “good fit.”

The state’s position seems to be that private schools can operate how they want, teach what they want, and admit the students they want. As long as they give state tests and persuade parents to pull their kids out of public schools, they’re welcome to our money.

At a time of ever-increasing accountability for traditional public schools and charter schools, that seems an odd stance to take.

A spreadsheet of state data on voucher schools, students and funding is here: 111103_Voucher Data