The Indiana Department of Education has released its 2017-18 school voucher report, providing more evidence that the state voucher program has evolved into something very different from its original design. It is now a massive government entitlement for religious schools and their students.
Indiana has awarded $154 million this year in private-school tuition vouchers to 35,458 students attending 318 schools. All those numbers are records, and nearly all the voucher schools are religious schools. The program keeps growing, although the growth has slowed.
Voucher advocates claim the program doesn’t cost the state because subsidizing tuition is cheaper than paying for students to attend public school. But many of the students have never attended public school; and there’s no clear evidence that, without vouchers, they would have.
According to the state report, 56.5 percent of students receiving vouchers this year have no record of having attended a public school in Indiana. That percentage grows every year.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who created the voucher program in 2011 with help from state Superintendent Tony Bennett and a compliant legislature, pitched it was a modest initiative to let some students escape public schools that were “failing.” In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, he said a key feature was that students would be required to attend a public school for two semesters to qualify. Public schools should have a chance to show they were effective, he said.
But that idea was tossed aside as Daniels’ successor, Mike Pence, created new pathways to vouchers and religious schools figured out how to exploit a rule that let students qualify if they had received support from scholarship granting organizations.
This year, only 7.5 percent of voucher students qualified by the original pathway of attending a public school for two semesters, a percentage that has declined every year. Less than 1 percent qualify by living in the attendance district for a public school that received an F from the state.
The voucher report includes a wealth of information, and the Department of Education gets credit for producing a comprehensive document – even though legislators stopped requiring the annual report once they figured out it wasn’t painting the cost-savings picture they’d hoped for. Some details:
- One in five families receiving vouchers have a household income over $75,000, and 4 percent make over $100,000. By comparison, the 2016 median household income in Indiana was $52,314.
- Some of the heaviest voucher use is in Allen County, where 4,711 students in the Fort Wayne Community Schools district attend private schools with vouchers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, which is about the same size, 3,584 students have vouchers.
- About 20 schools that earned D’s or F’s on state report cards last year were awarded a total of $12.8 million in vouchers. Six schools that got F’s were awarded $5.4 million.
Nearly all voucher schools are Catholic, Lutheran or evangelical Christian. As HuffPost and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported last fall, dozens of schools in the latter category use a fundamentalist curriculum that teaches “homosexuality as immoral, environmentalism as spiritually bankrupt and evolution as an evil idea.”
Indiana also provides support via vouchers to schools that discriminate on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. That ought to raise constitutional issues. At the very least, it’s bad public policy and a poor use of public resources.