Voucher program a subsidy for religion

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.

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Urban schools losing students to transfers

Only 56 percent of school-age children who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools district attend IPS schools. The rest attend charter schools, receive vouchers to attend private schools or transfer to public schools in other districts.

In Gary, it’s even worse. Only 39 percent of school-age children who live in the district attend Gary Community Schools. More Gary students attend charter schools than local public schools.

These figures include only students whose schooling is funded by the state, not those who attend private schools and don’t receive vouchers. They are among the findings of the first Public Corporation Transfer Report, a revealing report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education..

And when students transfer out of their local school district to attend other public schools, charter schools or private schools, it matters. Districts lose funding when they lose students, and declining enrollment is one reason IPS, Gary and other urban districts have struggled financially.

In those cities, the growth of charter schools and state-funded vouchers for private schools have been driving the decline in enrollment. But elsewhere, a bigger factor has been the de facto inter-district open enrollment that was created when the state took responsibility for funding school operations several years ago. In some areas, students transfer so much that district boundaries seem almost meaningless.

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Graduation pathways fast-tracked

You’ve heard of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Welcome to Indiana, where the children need to be average or above to earn a high-school diploma.

That may be where we’re heading with the recommendations approved Tuesday by the Graduation Pathways Panel and sent to the State Board of Education for consideration. The board could approve the recommendations – a significant change in what it takes to earn a diploma – on Dec. 6.

Panel members say their plan will expand access by creating more pathways that students can follow to graduate. What they don’t say is that each pathway includes barriers that could prevent some students from reaching the goal.

  • Students can qualify via the SAT or ACT exam, but only if their scores meet “college-ready benchmarks,” nearly the average for college-bound test takers.
  • They can qualify by getting a passing score on a military enlistment test, but today’s all-volunteer military doesn’t admit just anyone.
  • They can qualify by passing at least three dual-credit, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, but they need at least a C grade.

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McCormick: “irresponsible” not to review voucher program

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, is showing herself to be a principled advocate for public schools, even if it means defying Republican orthodoxy on private school vouchers.

After six years of experience with a fast-growing and largely unregulated voucher system, she told National Public Radio reporters, it’s time for Indiana to take a serious look at the program.

“You know, we’re spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it. That is irresponsible,” said McCormick, a Republican who took office in January.

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Cost calculation missing from voucher report

The annual school voucher report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education includes lots of useful and important information. But something is missing.

Gone from the 122-page report is the “special distribution” calculation, which gave us an idea of how much the voucher program could be costing the state’s taxpayers. In its place is a new calculation that shows how much it might cost if all voucher students attended Indiana public schools.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said the old calculation was dropped because the result “can be misleading as it does not show a true depiction of what the cost/benefit situation is.”

That’s true, but neither does the new calculation. It’s obvious that many families receiving vouchers never had any intention of sending their children to public schools, so the cost of their education amounts to a new expense for the state, not a savings. The voucher program has become a state subsidy for religious education.

The special distribution calculation provided a sort of worst-case estimate of the net cost to the state of the voucher program. In 2015-16 the figure was $53.2 million.

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Voucher price tag keeps rising

Hoosier taxpayers paid $131.9 million in the 2015-16 academic year to send students to private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. That’s a key figure in an updated school voucher report released this week by the Indiana Department of Education.

What the voucher program actually cost the state is an open question, because we don’t know how many of the 32,686 voucher students would have attended public schools if not for the vouchers. If they had, the state would have been paying the full cost of their schooling, not just the voucher amount.

But, using a formula created by the pro-voucher state legislature, the state education department calculates the net cost to the state at $53.2 million, up from $40 million in 2014-15. That’s a good chunk of change that could otherwise be used to support public schools.

What is clear is that state officials pulled something of a bait-and-switch with vouchers. When the program was created in 2011, advocates insisted it was a way for poor children to escape “failing” public schools. Gov. Mitch Daniels even said it was appropriate that students should attend a public school for a year to qualify for a voucher, so they could see first-hand if the school was any good.

But lawmakers quickly expanded the program, making it more generous and easier to qualify. According to the state report, 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

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Why public records should be made public

School grades are bogus, so why ask for more of them? That’s a reasonable question.

Why would a critic of the state’s system of grading schools on an A-to-F scale ask the Indiana Department of Education to provide data showing what grades the schools would have received for 2014-15 it if weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by the General Assembly?

Why would I file a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor when the department refused? And would I share the data with readers if I got my hands on it? Yes, absolutely. Here’s why:

Transparency matters

Public records belong to the public and, on principle, should be disclosed unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them secret. And in this case, there really isn’t. The preamble to the state Access to Public Records Act gets it just right:

“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.” Continue reading