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.