Voucher program got smaller

Indiana’s school voucher program got a bit smaller in the 2020-21 school year, according to the annual voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

The number of students who received vouchers to pay tuition at private K-12 schools dropped by just over 1,000 to 35,698, a 2.75% decrease. The 10-year-old voucher program grew rapidly in its early years, but its growth stalled more recently.

Of course, everything changes with the school year that’s now getting underway. The legislature voted in the spring to expand the voucher program, opening the door to more middle- and upper-income families. Private schools are eagerly promoting the expansion.

In the 2020-21 school year, Indiana paid out $170.7 million in vouchers. That’s just over $1 million less than it paid in the previous year. Hoosier taxpayers have paid about $1.2 billion for vouchers since the program launched a decade ago.

Other highlights from the 2020-21 voucher report include:

  • 324 private schools, nearly all of them religious schools, received vouchers. That’s down from 326 the previous year.
  • 7.1% of families receiving vouchers had an annual income of over $100,000. A quarter of recipients made over $75,000, which is right at the state’s median family income.
  • 11.8% of voucher recipients were Black, 23.6% were Hispanic and 54.8% were white. Given that a majority of voucher recipients live in urban areas, it seems likely that Black students are underrepresented.
  • 3.2% of Indiana students received vouchers, 3.9% attended private schools without vouchers, 4.5% attended charter schools and 88.4% attended public schools.
  • 61.7% of voucher recipients had not previously attended a public school. About 80% of students who were new to the program hadn’t attended a public school.

At its inception, the voucher program was promoted as a way to help students from low-income families and students of color transfer out of “failing” public schools. But eligibility criteria were loosened, and the program has served increasing numbers of white and middle-income families. Today, only a handful of voucher students live in a district where they would attend a public school that received an F in Indiana’s school accountability system.

Proponents also claimed the program would save money, because it would cost more for students to attend their local public school than the cost of a voucher. A Ball State University report said vouchers saved Indiana about $60 million in 2019-20. But that calculation posited that 89% of voucher students would attend public schools if not for vouchers. I’m skeptical of that number, given that over 60% of voucher students have never attended a public school. I suspect many never would. A survey of Indiana voucher families by the pro-voucher group EdChoice found that 38% said they would send their children to a private school if vouchers went away, and fewer than half said they would choose a local public school.

Regardless, the situation changes now that the program has expanded to include families that make up to three times the threshold to qualify for reduced-price school meals: $172,000 for a family of five. Next year’s voucher report is likely to tell a different story.

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