Vouchers a new entitlement to religious education

Indiana’s school voucher program keeps drifting further from what we were told it was supposed to be. That’s the inevitable conclusion from data in the 2016-17 voucher report released recently by the Indiana Department of Education.

When lawmakers created the program in 2011, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels said it was a way to help children from poor families find a better alternative to failing public schools. But the program has evolved into a new entitlement: state-funded religious education for middle and low-income families.

Some 54 percent of students receiving vouchers this year have no record of having attended an Indiana public school, the report says. Voucher advocates initially insisted the program would save the state money, because it would cost less to subsidize private school tuition than to send a student to a public school. But increasingly vouchers are going to families that never had any intention of sending their kids to public schools; that’s an entirely new cost for the state to take on.

Also, vouchers are more and more going to students who are white, suburban and non-poor. When the program started, more than half of participating students were black or Hispanic. Now over 60 percent are white, and only 12.4 percent are African-American. It’s reasonable to ask if, in some cases, vouchers are a state-funded mechanism for “white flight” from schools that are becoming more diverse.

Vouchers were sold on the idea that they would help low-income families that couldn’t afford private school tuition. But from the start, the program has also served middle-income families, providing a partial voucher — 50 percent of per-pupil state funding for the local public school — to families that could probably afford private school without help.

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Why Title I funds were cut for Indiana charter schools

Indiana charter school operators were alarmed to learn that many of the schools were slated for unexpected cuts in their 2015-16 allocations under the federal Title I program. What happened?

Michelle McKeown of the Indiana Charter School Board says the glitch appears to result from the way the Indiana Department of Education determined school free and reduced-price lunch counts for purposes of allocating the funds. And it is tied to the participation by some high-poverty school districts in the new Community Eligibility program, in which all students get free school lunches.

McKeown makes a persuasive case that the education department calculated Title I funding using Community Eligibility data for school districts but used different data for charter schools.

“This is the only explanation that makes sense to me,” McKeown, the interim executive director of the charter school board, told me. “I think it’s very clear they used different sets of data.”

It’s worth noting that, even with the cuts, some charter schools still get more Title I money per student than the local districts. And some charter schools got increases. But the situation has political resonance because Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who heads the state education department, is lukewarm on charter schools. Some of her critics seemed to suspect treachery.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, declined to comment on McKeown’s conclusions but said the department used the same formula to allocate Title I funding that has been used for over a decade. He said some schools had errors in data they submitted, which can have an effect on the allocations.

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