Pence on vouchers: strong rhetoric, weak on evidence

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence delivered a passionate speech in support of private-school tuition vouchers Monday at a Washington, D.C., policy summit sponsored by the American Federation for Children. But the data he used to make his case were pretty flimsy.

Pence cited improvement in Indiana public school test scores and high-school graduation rates between 2006-07 and 2011-12 to argue that “competition works,” improving performance across the board. But Indiana didn’t create its voucher program until 2011. Almost all the improvement came before that, when public schools enjoyed a supposed monopoly on taxpayer-funded education.

Passing rates on ISTEP-Plus English and math exams increased from 63.9 percent in 2006-07 to 70.2 percent in 2010-11; then they climbed to 71.5 percent the first year of vouchers. Graduation rates rose from 77.7 in 2006-07 to 86.8 percent in 2010-11, then inched up to 88.4 percent in 2011-12.

Arguing that vouchers caused competition which caused the improvement doesn’t make sense. If anything, the data suggest Indiana schools were doing just fine without vouchers.

Data and logic aside, Pence’s speech had a lot going for it. He made clear he’s no Johnny-come-lately to the cause, giving props to the godparents of the movement, the late Milton and Rose Friedman, and to the late Indiana businessman J. Patrick Rooney, an early voucher proponent. He cited his support in Congress for vouchers in Washington, D.C.

“Make no mistake about it,” he told the pro-voucher audience, “the work you do here today, the advancement of the kind of reforms that will unleash the full potential of our people, today and tomorrow, is creating a better and stronger America and a better and stronger world, so help us God.”

Unlike some voucher supporters, Pence didn’t engage in gratuitous bad-mouthing of public schools. (He did take one cheap shot comparing voucher opponents to Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door 50 years ago. Wallace wanted to keep black kids out of school; we want to keep them from leaving. Get it?)

Neither did he bash teachers – which probably wouldn’t have been a good idea on a night when the news was filled with stories of Oklahoma teachers putting themselves at risk to protect their students from a devastating tornado. He said Indiana schools and teachers will rise to the occasion if challenged to compete.

You can watch Pence’s speech on YouTube and read about it in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and at the Franklin College Statehouse File site. (Subscribe, it’s only $5 a month and worth it!).

Boost in voucher funding

It didn’t get much attention, but Indiana legislators managed to approve a couple of voucher funding increases in the session that ended last month.

First, the budget bill boosted the maximum voucher for students in grades 1-8. It had been $4,500. Now it will be $4,700 in 2013-14 and $4,800 in 2014-15. The increase had been in House Enrolled Act 1003, the voucher expansion measure, but it was moved to the budget in the final week.

Also, HEA 1003 says that voucher students who qualify for special education services will now carry the same additional funding as special-needs students in public schools.

State law says schools receive the following amounts for each special-education student, in additional to their base per-pupil funding: $8,350 for a severe disability, $2,265 for a moderate disability and $533 for a communication disorder.

If voucher schools get additional money to serve students with disabilities, will they still be able to refuse enrollment to such students? I hope to write more about that soon.

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3 thoughts on “Pence on vouchers: strong rhetoric, weak on evidence

  1. The only reliable measure of academic progress is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The test is given to 4th and 8th graders and includes math, science, and reading.

    Between 2007-2011 the percentage of tested students scoring at or above basic either fell slightly or stayed the same.

    The ISTEP is not an accurate “snapshot” of student achievement. The test is somewhat predictable, and teachers can prepare and practice for the test. Test prep is rampant.

    There is no way to prepare for the NAEP tests. The test is also well-designed and relatively unbiased.

    By the way, the way Indiana graded ISTEP tests changed in 2011 when they began to exclude undetermined scores (unfinished tests). This alone improves passing rates by at least 2%.

    There is absolutely no evidence vouchers (or any of the recent “reform efforts) have improved student achievement.

    And is anyone scared of Pence’s tendency to embrace a Christian theocracy?

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