Cost calculation missing from voucher report

The annual school voucher report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education includes lots of useful and important information. But something is missing.

Gone from the 122-page report is the “special distribution” calculation, which gave us an idea of how much the voucher program could be costing the state’s taxpayers. In its place is a new calculation that shows how much it might cost if all voucher students attended Indiana public schools.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said the old calculation was dropped because the result “can be misleading as it does not show a true depiction of what the cost/benefit situation is.”

That’s true, but neither does the new calculation. It’s obvious that many families receiving vouchers never had any intention of sending their children to public schools, so the cost of their education amounts to a new expense for the state, not a savings. The voucher program has become a state subsidy for religious education.

The special distribution calculation provided a sort of worst-case estimate of the net cost to the state of the voucher program. In 2015-16 the figure was $53.2 million.

The calculation was included in voucher reports produced by the Department of Education under previous Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat and voucher opponent. But Republicans who control the state legislature hated the calculation. And with Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, now serving as superintendent, it disappeared.

In its place is a calculation that says, if all voucher students attended public schools – and the legislature boosted education funding accordingly – they would cost the state $214 million, $68 million more than we spend on vouchers. Baker, the DOE spokesman, conceded that’s a “hypothetical” figure, however.

Let me note that McCormick and the department deserve credit for producing the voucher report and releasing it in a timely fashion, while the legislature is in session. They didn’t have to release the report, and some lawmakers would probably prefer they hadn’t. And the report includes some new information that is helpful, such as more thorough details on where students take their voucher dollars.

It’s frustrating that there is no way to know the true cost of a program as consequential as school vouchers. You would think lawmakers would want to collect data to permit an accurate calculation. Or maybe not.

But we do know that Indiana awarded $146 million in vouchers this year to help 34,299 students attend 313 private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. Arguably those are the numbers that matter.

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One thought on “Cost calculation missing from voucher report

  1. Thank you, Steve! I would add another thing that is missing from this report: the first several years of the program. Why has the current DOE chosen to begin with the 2014-2015 school year instead of 2011-2012? I can’t speak to motivation, but I do notice effects: it changes the trend lines and the apparent starting points, at least in looking at the percentage usage of vouchers by different ethnic groups.

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