Hoosier taxpayers paid $131.9 million in the 2015-16 academic year to send students to private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. That’s a key figure in an updated school voucher report released this week by the Indiana Department of Education.
What the voucher program actually cost the state is an open question, because we don’t know how many of the 32,686 voucher students would have attended public schools if not for the vouchers. If they had, the state would have been paying the full cost of their schooling, not just the voucher amount.
But, using a formula created by the pro-voucher state legislature, the state education department calculates the net cost to the state at $53.2 million, up from $40 million in 2014-15. That’s a good chunk of change that could otherwise be used to support public schools.
What is clear is that state officials pulled something of a bait-and-switch with vouchers. When the program was created in 2011, advocates insisted it was a way for poor children to escape “failing” public schools. Gov. Mitch Daniels even said it was appropriate that students should attend a public school for a year to qualify for a voucher, so they could see first-hand if the school was any good.
But lawmakers quickly expanded the program, making it more generous and easier to qualify. According to the state report, 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.
As for benefits in the classroom, a recent string of studies from Ohio, Louisiana and Indiana found that receiving a voucher was associated with lower academic achievement, leaving the folks at some pro-voucher think tanks scratching their heads.
A recent parent survey by the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice provides more evidence that the Indiana program’s primary thrust is to provide public support for religion, not to boost academic quality. Some 85 percent of voucher students’ parents in the survey said “religious environment/instruction” was a key factor in their choice of private school.
The voucher program has grown dramatically, and officials at some voucher schools report a primary source of their expansion has been families that previously home-schooled their children and were never part of the world of public education.
The Friedman Foundation and other voucher advocates still insist the program isn’t costing the state anything, but their arguments are strained and unconvincing. Most of the evidence suggests it’s costing a lot. And even if it weren’t, using over $100 million in state funds to support the teaching and practice of religion would still be wrong.