Indiana’s private school voucher program launched in 2011 with a promise that it would help students from low-income families transfer out of low-performing public schools. The implication was that many of those students would be students of color.
But the program has evolved, becoming more of a state subsidy for parent choice and religious education. And, in some urban districts, Black students are significantly less likely to take part in the program than white students, according to Indiana Department of Education data.
Statewide, students receiving state-funded tuition vouchers are less likely to be white and more likely to be Hispanic than Indiana’s overall public-school enrollment. The percentage of Black students is about the same, just over 11%. (That’s a change; in the program’s early years, 30% of voucher students were Black).
Students with vouchers are more likely to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals: 61.4% compared to 45.9% in public school districts. That is no surprise, because, to qualify for the program, families have to be in approximately the bottom half of the state’s income distribution.
But voucher use varies widely. Half the 35,150 students receiving vouchers live in just 10 school districts. In several urban districts where vouchers are concentrated, recipients are disproportionately white and Hispanic, and Black students are underrepresented.
Voucher hot spots include Fort Wayne, where 12% of K-12 students who live in the district receive vouchers, and South Bend, where the figure is 11.7%. In Indianapolis Public Schools, it’s 8.2%.
In Fort Wayne Community Schools:
- 25% of students are Black but only 10.3% of voucher recipients are Black.
- 38.5% of district students are white but 58.4% of voucher students are white.
- 19.7% of district students are Hispanic and so are 19.7% of voucher students.
In South Bend Community Schools:
- 37.6% of district students are Black but only 11.8% of voucher students are Black.
- 27.4% of district students are white but 43% of voucher students are white.
- 23.6% of district students are Hispanic but 37.8% of voucher students are Hispanic.
In Indianapolis Public Schools, including IPS innovation network schools:
- 43.6% of district students are Black but only 20.2% of voucher students are Black.
- 30.3% of district students are Hispanic but 47.5% of voucher students are Hispanic.
- 20% of district students are white and 25.5% of voucher students are white.
Trends are similar in other urban districts, but not all of them. In Perry Township Schools in Indianapolis, Asian students are overrepresented in the voucher program but Hispanic students are not.
In Fort Wayne and South Bend, students who receive vouchers are less likely than their district-school peers to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. But in some other urban districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools, voucher students are more likely to qualify for subsidized meals.
In IPS, far more students of all races attend charter schools than receive vouchers. In Fort Wayne and South Bend, more students receive vouchers than attend charter schools.
Statewide and across districts, the greater use of the voucher program by Hispanic students is not surprising, and it is additional evidence the program is more about religious education than anything else.
Nearly all the 300-plus Indiana private schools that accept vouchers are religious schools. Over half are Catholic schools, which were well established (but losing enrollment) before the voucher program arrived. Some 60% of students in Indiana private schools attend Catholic schools.
In the United States, 57% of Hispanic adults identify as Catholic, according to a research center at Georgetown University, compared to one-fifth of the general population. Pew Research Center reports that 34% of U.S. Catholics identify as Hispanic while only 3% at Black. More Catholic schools accepting vouchers naturally leads to more Hispanic students receiving vouchers. But the excess number of white students leaving diverse urban school districts via vouchers can’t be explained by religion; it must be … something else.
Of course, all these numbers will change if state legislators go forward with their plan to vastly expand vouchers and create a new education savings account program. They want to extend more generous private-school vouchers to families that make up to 300% of the cutoff for reduced-price school meals – $145,000 for a family of four. If that happens, the voucher universe will certainly become more disproportionately white and less poor, and not just in diverse urban districts.
Next up: Who attends charter schools?