Indiana voucher students getting whiter, less poor

Indiana’s voucher initiative was billed as a way to help poor children, many of them black and Hispanic, escape low-performing urban public schools. But it’s shifting rapidly to a program that serves middle-class white families, according to data released this week.

It’s also getting a lot bigger, but we already knew that. The number of students getting taxpayer dollars to attend mostly religious private schools more than doubled this year, to 19,809 students, the Indiana Department of Education reported.

But the demographic shift is equally striking. White students receiving vouchers grew from 46.4 percent in 2011-12, the program’s first year, to 56.4 percent this year. The percentage of black students among recipients has declined by a third in just two years.

To what extent are white parents using state-funded vouchers to pull their children out of racially integrated public schools and send them to mostly white private schools? How often are we subsidizing moves from effective public schools to ineffective private schools? Those are among the questions that figures in the DOE report don’t answer.

We do know, thanks to State Impact Indiana, that a lot of parents are using vouchers to move their children to private schools that earned Ds or Fs on the state grading system.

With regard to income, in the program’s first year, 85 percent of participants received the maximum voucher amount, which meant their family income was low enough that they qualified for free and reduced-price school lunches. Now that figure is down to 75 percent.

And thanks to the expansion of the program that the legislature approved last year, families can keep getting vouchers if their income rises to 370 percent of the federal poverty level — $102,000 for a couple with three children. It’s been estimated that two-thirds of Indiana students meet family income requirements for vouchers.

The 2013 expansion also made it possible for students to get vouchers without first attending a public school — for example, if they have a sibling who has received a voucher or if their local public school got an F from the state. That change brought thousands of additional students into the voucher program.

“The original premise was, give public schools a chance and see what you think,” David Dresslar of the University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning told the Indianapolis Star. “Now, that premise has eroded to the point where private schools are an alternative to public schools.”

Some of those private schools are getting more than $1 million this year from vouchers – and, again, almost all of them are religious schools that teach religion as part of their curriculum.

Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett sold the voucher program in 2011 as a way to improve educational opportunity. But it has become something very different: taxpayer support for middle-class kids getting a religious education — to the tune of $81 million.


14 thoughts on “Indiana voucher students getting whiter, less poor

  1. Tony & Mitch lied as many of us knew. Our representatives in the General Assembly are bent on the destruction of public schools. I imagine some are in it to support segregation & others because they believe corporatization is always the better way to go no matter what.

    Just imagine if we had let our social security dollars be privatized like the Bush administration wanted. Think of all the people who would have lost their social security when Wall Street imploded.

    With privatization comes no accountability for the providers. As a parent of kids who went through public schools, I would not want that loss of input & accountability.

      • As a parent of children who attended a combination both of public and of private schools during their K-12 years (not in Indiana), I’d have liked the voucher choice in a couple of areas where we lived during those K-12 years. For families whose careers take them to new and different locales on a regular basis, occasionally a private school does provide a higher quality of academic instruction than the public school, especially in rural areas. Strictly an anecdote from our time in a small rural community, we had absolutely no qualms about withdrawing our 7th grade child from the local public middle school after one week of his suffering through classes where the students appeared to be in control and where he heard racial epitaphs, words he’d never heard used, tossed around by students, on a daily basis, inside the classrooms. We enrolled him in our ‘Plan B’ school, the only other school in the county, the only alternative, a Catholic school and we were not members of the Catholic Church or members of any church, for that matter. In retrospect, those few years in the Catholic school were the best years of his overall K-12 education. No, we were not moving our child to a racially segregated school, not running away from people of color because the public school racial demographic in that particular area was 99%+ White. I’m simply happy I had enough money to pay for the private school tuition, and my child was not an educational victim of our rural Zip Code. For people living in small rural communities and who aren’t satisfied with the status quo or the generally accepted low expectations for rural kids, the voucher system does provide an avenue of choice. When discussing Indiana education reform, please remember not to limit the discussions to those living in urban areas.

  2. Steve,

    As you stated, the data leads to some important questions that aren’t answered in the report.
    Here’s another data analysis I found interesting: The number of students receiving vouchers by grade level is a fluent trend down, starting at nearly 14% in grade 1 to just above 2% in grade 12. Any theories for this?

    • Thanks, John. Yeah, that’s interesting. I think you’d expect some drop-off in the upper grades because 1) kids by that age may be loyal to their schools and their friends and won’t see the advantage to changing; they’re less likely to do what their parents say; and 2) there may be fewer options for private high schools than elementary schools, and they may be more expensive. (In Bloomington the one Catholic school just goes through eighth grade, and nearly all the students go from there to public high school; some would probably move regardless for sports and extracurriculars).

      This is speculation, but the big numbers in first and second grade seem to confirm what David Dresslar suggests — that vouchers have made private schools a first choice for many families, especially those who want religious education. In other words, the parents aren’t trying public schools and finding them lacking; they’re choosing from the start to send their kids to private schools and doing the minimum necessary to qualify for vouchers. Do you think private schools are recruiting kids out of kindergarten?

      • Also, another factor for high school is that students tend to drop out in 10th grade if they are going to do so. I do not know about Indiana but in NC students can opt to drop out at 16 without parental consent.

      • Thanks, Dorothy. I believe Indiana law requires parent permission for students to drop out before age 18.

      • Steve, I can’t speak for all parents, I can’t speculate about even a small group of parents, but I can speak for myself, one parent who’s likely not a lot different than the broader base of parents with children of school age. As a parent, if you’re living in an area where the public schools chronically receive low scores, then it’s not unusual for thoughtful parents to take proactive measures with their children’s educational futures, well before they’re 5 years old and ready for Kindergarten. Why would a thoughtful parent enroll a 5 year old in a school district they knew in advance was a dysfunctional or failing district as per scores posted Online and available to the public? In our age of Internet access, parents can now plan ahead for their children’s education and can make decisions before they are mandated by a public law to sacrifice a year or two of their child’s future to a dysfunctional public school before moving the child into a school where their educational expectations are on the same page. Speaking as a career public school educator and with apologies to the late Walt Kelly for paraphrasing his Pogo, “We have met the enemy; he is us.”

      • Thanks for commenting. I hear what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in school grades or test scores to predict the educational experience each child is likely to have. We know that grades and test scores at the school level are correlated with family wealth and demographic factors as much or more than with school effectiveness. I like to think of myself as a thoughtful parent; and my children, when they were young, did attend a diverse (high-poverty) school that in today’s world would receive low school grades. As to whether I sacrificed years of their futures, you’d have to ask them.

  3. At the risk of sounding redundant, I reiterate a point I’ve consistently maintained.

    Vouchers were never about increasing student achievement. If that was the case, opponents of vouchers, using existing research, could easily show vouchers do not increase academic achievement.

    Vouchers were created out of the ideological beliefs in the primacy of individual choice and freedom and the notion that competition is the driving principle behind school improvement.

    All the other assertions about vouchers are window dressing.

  4. Let me add that the proponents of vouchers will not rest until they are universally implemented with equal access for all parents regardless of income.

    So what will be the next line of argument?

    Vouchers amounts are to low considering the tuition of private schools. We need to increase the monetary value of vouchers.

  5. Private schools that have accepted vouchers are finding that they are not prepared to handle the needs of some children. A local private school has had to implement extra tutoring and hire addition aides to assist in the classroom. Although they are receiving more money through having more students, but they are learning it comes at a cost.

  6. Pingback: Support Betsy DeVos, shoot yourself in the foot - The Hechinger Report

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