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.
Here’s how accountability is supposed to work for private schools that receive vouchers:
- If a school gets a D or F on the state grading system for two consecutive years, it can’t add additional voucher students for one year. Current students who receive vouchers may continue attending the school, however.
- If a school gets a D or F for three consecutive years, it can’t add voucher students until it raises its grade to a C and keeps it there for two years. Central Christian, Turning Point and Lutheran South Unity were in that category.
- If a school gets an F for three consecutive years, it can’t add voucher students until it raises its grade to a C and keeps it there for three years. Trinity Lutheran was in that category.
State Board of Education staff took the position that a school could demonstrate sufficient academic improvement for a waiver by raising its school grade. The four schools did that – significantly. After getting Ds or Fs for three straight years, Central Christian and Turning Point raised their grades to A and Lutheran South Unity and Trinity Lutheran raised their grades to B.
But did the four schools truly turn themselves around? Indiana switched to a new school grading system in 2015-16, so an improved grade doesn’t necessarily measure academic improvement. Dramatic improvement, from consistently low-performing to high-performing in just one year, may raise questions the system’s reliability.
Grades also reflect unique characteristics of the schools. First, all are quite small, so only a handful of students took the standardized tests that largely drive school grades. In 2015-16, the year of the most recent grades, enrollment was fewer than 200 students at Central Christian and Lutheran South Unity, fewer than 150 at Turning Point and fewer than 100 at Trinity Lutheran, according to Indiana Department of Education data.
Second, there seems to be quite a bit of student turnover at these schools, judging by shifts in enrollment numbers and demographics from year to year. Students who took standardized tests in 2015-16 aren’t necessarily the same ones who took tests the previous year.
And at Central Christian, so few students taking the relevant exams that their scores didn’t count much toward its grade. Instead, half the school’s score was based on its high-school graduation rate and “college and career readiness” score, soft measures that boosted its overall grade.
Underperforming private schools, unlike public schools, don’t face the risk of being shut down or taken over by the state. They don’t even lose vouchers for students who are already receiving them. The only consequence for failure is that they can’t keep adding additional voucher students at public expense.
Now even that limited accountability has been shelved for these four schools.