Why lawmakers repealed voucher cost calculation

One of the selling points when Indiana’s school voucher program was created in 2011 was that it would save money — because students who got vouchers for private-school tuition would cost the state less than if they attended their local public schools.

Legislators even wrote a formula for calculating the savings and included it in the state budget, along with a plan for distributing the extra money to public schools.

But the savings disappeared as the state expanded the voucher program to include many students who had never attended a public school. The savings became a cost – and the cost grew, reaching $40 million in the 2014-15 school year.

How did state legislators respond? By repealing the cost calculation formula.

The formula was part of the state budgets in 2011 and 2013. It was in the 2015 budget bill introduced early this year in the House. But lawmakers deleted the language before approving the budget in April.

Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, told me it was proper to dump the formula because it no longer works now that the mix of voucher students has changed.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to calculate the savings in that format,” he said.

Here’s how the formula works. First you take the students who used vouchers to transfer out of public schools and calculate how much their schooling would have cost the state if they had stayed in public schools. Then you subtract what the state spends on vouchers. That’s the savings – or, if the result is negative, the cost.

Vouchers pay either 90 percent or 50 percent of per-pupil spending for the student’s local public school, depending on family income. So for a student who qualifies for a voucher and moves from a public school to a private school, the state saves 10 percent or 50 percent of the cost.

In the first year of the program, nearly all voucher students previously attended public schools – so vouchers initially produced a savings. But that has changed. The legislature expanded the program in 2013 to award vouchers to students who would otherwise attend “failing” public schools, students in special education, and siblings of prior voucher recipients, even if they hadn’t attended public schools.

And perhaps more significantly, private schools figured out they could qualify students for vouchers by awarding them tuition assistance from state-sanctioned “scholarship granting organizations.” That became the fastest-growing segment of the voucher student population.

In 2014-15, fully half the 29,148 students who received vouchers had never attended an Indiana public school. Among first-time voucher recipients, 80 percent hadn’t attended a public school. Using the state cost calculation formula, those students are pure cost to the state – no savings.

The Indiana Department of Education, following the budget law, has included the savings or cost in annual reports on the voucher program, the most recent of which was released this month. Going forward, it could still calculate and report the voucher program’s cost. But the law won’t require it.

Department spokesman Daniel Altman said it’s too early to say what future reports will include. “However, we will ensure that we provide an accurate reporting on the program to the public,” he said.

Voucher supporters, including some legislators and the advocacy group Hoosiers for Quality Education, dispute the claim that the program cost $40 million last year.

For calculating costs, the question is whether voucher students would have attended public schools if it weren’t for vouchers. If they would have, then the program would still save the state money. But if their parents always intended to send them to private schools and are simply taking advantage of vouchers to make it cheaper or free, they are an added cost.

Behning argues that, in most cases, it’s the former. He said families with incomes modest enough to qualify for vouchers couldn’t afford private school tuition without the assistance.

He posited a four-person family that qualifies for full vouchers with an income of $44,000. With two children in private school, tuition might cost 20 percent of the family’s income.

“There’s no way those parents are going to be able to afford private school tuition,” Behning said. Without vouchers, “those kids would have been in public school.”

But Indiana’s income guidelines to qualify for vouchers are extraordinarily generous. A family of five that makes over $77,000 can qualify for partial vouchers. Once they qualify, a family of five whose income rises to $100,000 can keep getting vouchers. Probably it could afford private school.

Single-parent families and families with two working parents are used to scraping together money to cover child care or preschool costs. And child care is often more expensive than private school tuition, which ranges locally from $3,500 to $7,000. (Behning noted that some voucher families would also receive government preschool assistance; but some certainly would not).

Also, as State Impact Indiana reported last week, voucher numbers have exploded in some areas, such as Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, without a corresponding drop in local public school enrollment. That suggests vouchers are going to families that always planned to choose private schools.

Behning said cost should ultimately be a secondary consideration in evaluating whether Indiana’s voucher program is fulfilling its purpose. “The goal was to provide parents with the best choice of school, whether it be public, private or charter,” he said.

And I agree that cost shouldn’t be primary. Indiana provides state funding for private schools that aren’t accountable to the public, that can discriminate in admissions and that teach religious doctrine and, in some cases, controversial views of history and current events. That’s either good public policy or it isn’t.


‘Separate but equal’ still a bad idea

The Supreme Court got it right 61 years ago when it ruled that “separate but equal” schools weren’t feasible, education and civil-rights scholar Gary Orfield told an Indiana University audience last week.

“We don’t have a set of institutions that are separate but equal in our society,” he said. “We’ve never had separate but equal.”

But policymakers have spent the past 35 years ignoring that simple truth, he said. America largely abandoned its successful but brief attempt to desegregate public schools and turned instead to assuming that all schools should be effective and calling out those that aren’t.

“In the ‘80s, we had this decision that you could ignore race, you could ignore class and you could create equal schools by command – test and accountability and it will work,” he said. “But it ends up that all the schools we sanction are schools that have concentrations of poor and minority students.”

Orfield was the keynote speaker at IU’s Martha McCarthy Education Law and Policy Institute. He is a professor at UCLA and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, which over 20 years has produced hundreds of studies related to issues of educational equity.

Another thing that hasn’t worked, Orfield said: Relying solely on school choice to improve education. “Freedom of choice” was the approach Southern states adopted after Brown v. Board of Education. But schools remained profoundly segregated until federal authorities demanded change in the 1960s.

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Change coming for Indiana school grades

A change is coming next year to Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system, and it may be a bigger change than even the most education-attuned Hoosiers yet realize.

While the State Board of Education has approved the framework for the new system, it still needs to decide how to award points for student growth on test scores, a key component for calculating grades. That won’t happen until this fall.

And what it decides will matter, according to simulations of what grades would have been if the new system had been in place a year ago. Under one approach to measuring growth, 40 percent of schools would have received As. Under another, barely 20 percent. Either way, it’s a change from the current system, which awarded As to 54 percent of schools last year.

Up to now, elementary and middle schools have been graded largely on the percentage of students who passed ISTEP+ exams in math and reading. They could gain or lose points for student growth on test scores, but performance was the primary factor. And that meant affluent schools typically got As or Bs.

Growth was measured by the Indiana Growth Model, a complex formula in which each student’s test-score improvement was compared with that of all students who scored the same the previous year.

The grading system for high schools is and will remain more complicated. It includes graduation rates and “college and career readiness” measures as well as test-score performance and growth.

The new system for elementary and middle schools will rely on student test-score performance for 50 percent of each school’s score and growth for the other 50 percent. That suggests a more level playing field for high-poverty schools. They may be able to get good grades if students grow enough.

And growth will be based on a “growth to proficiency table,” a new method for awarding points for how much students improved their test performance. Here’s how it will work.

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Segregated schools in a progressive town

The Monroe County, Ind., school board thought it was doing the right thing nearly 20 years ago by approving a redistricting plan that clustered many of the community’s neediest children in a single elementary school.

But times have changed, and maybe it’s time to revisit that decision.

The 1997 redistricting did a number of things, but the biggest was moving students from a large public housing complex to Fairview Elementary, which was already a high-poverty school. The plan prioritized “neighborhood schools.” The housing complex was near Fairview, so that was where the kids would go.

My two younger children were Fairview students at the time, and along with most teachers and parents, I thought the plan made sense. Fairview was a good school, with dedicated staff and engaged families. Those kids needed to be taught somewhere.

But the decision failed to anticipate a couple of trends. One is the way schools with high poverty have been increasingly labeled and stigmatized as “failing.” The other is the way parents with means have been able to use school choice to opt out of neighborhood schools.

At Fairview, 71 percent of Fairview students qualified for free school lunch after redistricting. Today the figure is 84 percent. That’s in spite of the fact that neighborhoods near the school have gentrified. And in spite of the Artful Learning the school board approved in hopes of retaining middle-class families.

Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and we entered a new era of school accountability. Publicly reported test scores and, eventually, school grades bolstered the idea that Fairview was a “bad” school. Some middle-class families in the neighborhood transferred their kids to private schools or a local charter school. Or they simply moved when their children reached school age. Continue reading