Another look at Indiana voucher study

Much of initial reporting on a groundbreaking study of Indiana’s school voucher program, including mine, suggested that voucher students do OK academically if they stay in private schools for four years. But a closer look raises questions about that narrative.

The study’s headline finding is that voucher students, on average, fall significantly behind their public-school peers in math performance while faring about the same in English/language arts. Given what we know, that’s really the message policymakers and the public should take from the research.

The study, by Joe Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame, was released Monday. Its findings were covered by National Public RadioChalkbeatEducation Week, the Indianapolis Star and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. A headline in the Washington Post was typical: “School voucher recipients lose ground at first, then catch up to peers, studies find.”

But the students who “catch up” are only a handful among voucher students included in the study. The study analyzed test scores for 3,913 students who received vouchers during the first four years of the Indiana program, from 2011-12 to 2014-15. But they had four years of test-score data for only about 5 percent of those students.

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Study: Indiana voucher students fall behind in math

Students who use Indiana’s voucher program to transfer from public to private schools aren’t seeing the test-score gains they may have expected. When it comes to academics, they could be better off staying in their local public schools, according to a long-awaited study released today.

The study, by Joe Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame, finds that voucher students experience significant losses in mathematics achievement after they transfer to private schools. Receiving a voucher did not have a significant effect on English/language arts test performance.

The findings are based on a detailed and rigorous analysis of ISTEP-Plus scores for students who received private school vouchers in the first four years of Indiana’s program.

The study follows a spate of negative evaluations of voucher programs in Ohio, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. But Indiana’s program is especially helpful to study. It’s the nation’s largest and most generous voucher program, enrolling more than 34,000 students; and it is unusual in that private schools that participate must administer state standardized tests the same as public schools.

You can read a detailed report on the study on the National Public Radio website.

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The problem with ‘public charter school’

Can we please banish the term “public charter school” from the education-writing lexicon? The language implies a value judgment about charter schools. To use it is to take sides. Journalists shouldn’t do that.

The obvious problem is that “public charter school” is either redundant or false. If charter schools are public schools, you don’t need to call them public. If they aren’t, calling them that won’t make it so.

The question is open to debate. Advocates insist charter schools are public schools, but critics argue otherwise, sometimes casting them as part of a movement to privatize education. Yet news media, from The New York Times on down, refer to “public charter schools” as if the question were settled.

The argument used to be that charter schools were public because they were publicly funded. But with the rise of tuition voucher programs, that’s also true of many private schools. In Indiana, some private religious schools rely almost exclusively on public funding via vouchers.

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Private schools that got voucher waivers were losing state funding

Four schools jumped to the front of the line when the Indiana legislature offered to waive accountability requirements for low-performing private schools that benefit from state-funded tuition vouchers.

And no wonder. Those four religious schools had seen their voucher funding drop by over $1.2 million in two years after being sanctioned for persistently low marks on the state’s A-to-F school grading system.

The law that legislators approved this spring says private schools can have the sanctions waived if a majority of their students demonstrated “academic improvement” in the preceding year. It doesn’t spell out what academic improvement means, leaving it to the State Board of Education to decide.

The board voted 6-2 last week to approve one-year waivers for the schools that requested them: Central Christian Academy, Trinity Lutheran and Turning Point School in Indianapolis and Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne. As a result, the schools can resume adding voucher-funded students this fall.

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New law trusts charter schools on teacher hiring

Indiana lawmakers intended to clear up confusion about charter-school teacher licensing when they approved House Enrolled Act 1382. They did that, but they also opened the door for charter schools to hire some teachers with no requirements whatsoever.

The new law says 90 percent of the teachers employed by a charter school must have or be in the process of obtaining any Indiana teaching license or permit. That includes a so-called charter school license, a lower bar than the standard license required to teach in a regular public school. It could also include a substitute teaching permit; you can get one if you’re at least 18 and have finished high school.

For up to 10 percent of teachers in a charter school, however, the legislation did away with any requirements at all. They don’t need a teaching license, a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Rep. Robert Behning, author of HEA 1382 and chair of the House Education Committee, said it’s appropriate to give charter schools more hiring flexibility in exchange for being held to higher expectations. He doesn’t think they will hire unqualified teachers.

“The 10 percent of teachers could be qualified professionals who might be considered experts in their field, and who are able to work in a classroom, but who do not currently have a license to teach,” he said in an email response to questions. “Ultimately, staffing decisions fall on the school administrators, who I believe will hire an educator they believe best fits the needs of their students.”

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