Indiana’s school voucher program keeps drifting further from what we were told it was supposed to be. That’s the inevitable conclusion from data in the 2016-17 voucher report released recently by the Indiana Department of Education.
When lawmakers created the program in 2011, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels said it was a way to help children from poor families find a better alternative to failing public schools. But the program has evolved into a new entitlement: state-funded religious education for middle and low-income families.
Some 54 percent of students receiving vouchers this year have no record of having attended an Indiana public school, the report says. Voucher advocates initially insisted the program would save the state money, because it would cost less to subsidize private school tuition than to send a student to a public school. But increasingly vouchers are going to families that never had any intention of sending their kids to public schools; that’s an entirely new cost for the state to take on.
Also, vouchers are more and more going to students who are white, suburban and non-poor. When the program started, more than half of participating students were black or Hispanic. Now over 60 percent are white, and only 12.4 percent are African-American. It’s reasonable to ask if, in some cases, vouchers are a state-funded mechanism for “white flight” from schools that are becoming more diverse.
Vouchers were sold on the idea that they would help low-income families that couldn’t afford private school tuition. But from the start, the program has also served middle-income families, providing a partial voucher — 50 percent of per-pupil state funding for the local public school — to families that could probably afford private school without help.
Once a student qualifies for a voucher, he or she can keep it as long as the family’s income doesn’t top 370 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $90,000 for a family of four – in a state where the median family income is $50,000.
This school year, Indiana is spending $146 million on private school vouchers for 34,299 students attending 313 private schools. Nearly all of those are religious schools.
The number of voucher students set a record, surpassing 3 percent of Indiana’s K-12 students for the first time. But growth in the program appeared to be leveling off, in keeping with predictions in a 2015 report from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.
The original pathway for students to qualify for vouchers was to spend at least two semesters in an Indiana public school. Daniels said that requirement was appropriate: that families should give public schools a chance before turning to the state for private school tuition. But legislators kept adding pathways to voucher eligibility. And private schools learned they could qualify many students for vouchers by awarding them funding donated by an approved Scholarship Granting Organization.
As if that weren’t enough, legislators keep coming up with new schemes to make more students voucher-eligible, including state-funded pre-school grants, “course access” programs that fund online classes, and “education savings accounts” that families can tap for private school tuition.
Meanwhile, evidence accumulates that vouchers don’t help students when it comes to learning. The most recent example: An analysis by Stanford researcher Martin Carnoy that finds vouchers produce few gains for students and carry “hidden costs” for public education.
State officials worry that they can’t afford to expand Indiana’s nascent pre-K programs or to give public schools more than a token increase in funding. Yet they’re spending tens of millions of dollars to promote religious education. It doesn’t make sense.