Now in its third year, Indiana’s school voucher program continues to be primarily about one thing: providing taxpayer support for Christian education.
Look at the numbers. There are 314 Indiana schools that are eligible to receive vouchers, according to the state Department of Education. By my count, only 11 are not religious schools. And only four of the religious schools are not Christian schools.
Indiana’s program has been in the news recently with reports that over 20,000 students applied for vouchers this fall, more than twice as many as last year. It’s now the second-biggest voucher program in the country, on track to surpass Milwaukee and become No. 1.
The growth comes even though, as Stephanie Simon pointed out recently in Politico, “there’s little evidence that the investment (in vouchers) yields academic gains.”
Voucher supporters, like Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully, argue the program is good because it lets more parents choose the school they think is best for their children. But as public-education advocates have begun pointing out, “school choice” is an apt name for the program – because the schools, not just parents, get to choose.
Private schools that accept vouchers can’t discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. But they are perfectly free to bar applicants on the basis of religion, poverty, previous grades and test scores, disciplinary issues, parental attitude, sexual orientation – or just because the kids or families aren’t a “good fit.”
And if a parent wants to use a voucher to send a child to a school that doesn’t promote Christianity, they’re almost certainly out of luck. Of the 303 sectarian schools that qualify for vouchers, 299 are Christian, two are Jewish and two are Muslim.
There are so few nonsectarian voucher schools that you can look at their websites and get a sense of how unlikely it is that they’ll be helping poor kids “escape” public schools.
Six of the 11 are specialized or alternative schools designed to serve children with disabilities or kids involved with the justice system — arguably the closest thing to a legitimate rationale for vouchers. One voucher-qualified school, Midwest Elite Prep Academy in Merrillville, appears to have a curriculum that consists entirely of basketball.
Several voucher schools are highly regarded, academically focused private schools, but most of them charge tuition of $15,000 or more. (The Howe School, a military boarding academy, charges $28,200). With vouchers capped at $4,500 per child in grades 1-to-8, it seems unlikely that those schools are becoming a lot more socioeconomically diverse.
Many of the religious schools, on the other hand, are affordable for families that qualify for vouchers. If the purpose of the program is create a taxpayer-funded entitlement for the teaching of Christian faith – primarily of the Catholic, Lutheran or evangelical varieties – then it’s a smashing success.