School vouchers and ‘learning loss’

Pundits have been wringing their hands over the “learning loss” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the largest decline in decades.

But if people care about what kids are and aren’t learning, they should be every bit as alarmed by the private school voucher programs that are spreading across the country.

That’s according to Joshua Cowen, a Michigan State University education policy professor. He’s been studying vouchers and following the research for two decades, and he says the evidence is crystal clear that voucher programs don’t work when it comes to helping students learn.

In a recent episode of “Have You Heard,” an education podcast, he said thorough evaluations of large-scale voucher programs – in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. – found overwhelmingly negative effects on learning as measured by test scores.

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From school choice to election denial

Patrick Byrne has been back in the news. Remember him? If you’ve followed Indiana politics – especially education politics – for the past decade, you very well may.

Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, has as a prominent election denier trying to cast doubt on the fact that Donald Trump lost in 2020. He was part of an “unhinged” White House meeting Dec. 18, 2020, where he and others reportedly urged Trump to fight harder to overturn the results.

More recently he has been headlining election-denial events around the country and espousing conspiracy theories. He told a gathering in Omaha that he has spent $20 million of his own money to show that voting machines were manipulated to influence the election. He said China plans to take over the United States by 2030.

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Vouchers prop up private schools

I’ve always thought that one of the motivations behind Indiana’s school voucher program was to create a taxpayer bailout for private schools, especially struggling Catholic schools. If that’s the case, it seems to have worked.

Enrollment for the state’s Catholic schools has held steady for the past 10 years, roughly the period that vouchers have been in place. Overall enrollment in accredited private schools has increased by 16%.

Contrast that with what’s happened elsewhere. Across the United States, enrollment in Catholic K-12 schools declined by 21.3% in the past 10 years, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic school enrollment peaked in the early 1960s at 5.2 million; it’s now about 1.7 million.

A recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows how this trend continues in St. Louis, where Catholic school enrollment has shrunk by half since 2000. The local archdiocese is embarking on a plan to close and consolidate schools, but that will be tricky, according to a community survey.

In Indiana, vouchers also cushioned the blow to private schools from the growth of charter schools. Indiana started charter schools in 2002 and greatly expanded them in 2011. They have grown explosively, especially in Indianapolis and Gary.

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School referendum language is ‘a lot misleading’

When I go to the polls this November, I will vote in a school funding referendum that – according to the language that appears on the ballot – will increase my property taxes for schools by 35%.

That would be a hefty increase if it were accurate, but it’s not. Not by a long shot.

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Detail from a Monroe County Community School Corp. referendum flyer.

The actual increase – the difference between the property tax rate that I now pay to the Monroe County Community School Corp. and the rate I will pay next year if the referendum passes – is about 15%.

But a 35% increase is what MCCSC officials have to advertise under legislation approved in 2021, and an interpretation of that law by the Department of Local Government Finance. Voters are getting misleading information, and school funding referendums could be harder to pass as a result.

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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.

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IPS, Gary dominate charter school demographics

Two themes jump out from Indiana Department of Education demographic data on charter school students in Indiana. First, it’s a tale of two cities – or, more accurately, a tale of two districts.

Over half of Indiana’s nearly 45,000 charter school students live in the Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Community Schools districts, even though those districts account for fewer than 5% of the state’s students. State charter school data are overwhelmingly skewed by what happens in those two districts.

Second, Indianapolis’ approximately 50 charter schools enroll higher percentages of Black and economically disadvantaged students than IPS schools – even though IPS has significantly more Black students and students from low-income families than most districts in the state.

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White teachers are the norm

Indiana has a teacher diversity problem. This has been an issue for a long time; and even though some school districts have been trying to hire more teachers of color, change comes slowly if at all.

Data from the Indiana Department of Education are discouraging, showing most students are missing out on the experience of learning from diverse teachers.

  • Over 93% of Indiana teachers are white. That compares with 66.4% of students in public and charter schools who are white.
  • Fewer than 4% of teachers are Black, compared with 12.7% of students.
  • Only 1.7% of teachers are Hispanic, compared with 12.8% of students.

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Indiana school funding lacks effort

The second annual “The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems” report is out. And if it were awarding grades, Indiana could expect a D-minus for effort.

The report, produced by researchers at the Albert Shanker Institute and the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, builds on the growing scholarly consensus that spending more money on schools leads to better results.

“In other words,” it says, “the evidence is clear that money does, indeed, matter.”

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Report shows most ‘segregating’ district borders

Lake County is home to half of the 14 most “segregating” school district boundaries in Indiana, according to a new report from EdBuild, a nonprofit group that addresses equity and school funding.

The report shows how school districts are often drawn in ways that divide affluent communities from low-income and more racially diverse areas right next door. It focuses on economic, not racial, segregation, but notes that the two types of segregation often go hand in hand.

“When school district borders cordon students into very high-poverty districts on one side of an arbitrary line, they thereby preserve unnaturally low-poverty districts on the other side, causing massive gaps in opportunity,” the authors write.

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Indiana NAEP results show widening gap in reading

Indiana saw some of the nation’s biggest declines in fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading scores when 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released Wednesday.

More worrisome is what appeared to drive the declines: A sharp drop among Indiana’s lowest-scoring students. That mirrors national results, which showed a divide between the highest-scoring and lowest-scoring students that grew larger between the 2017 and 2019 administration of NAEP.

“The most disturbing pattern we see in the 2019 NAEP results is that both fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores decreased most among our lowest performing students,” Indiana University professor Sarah Theule Lubienski said by email. “For example, while reading scores slipped just 1 point for students scoring among the top 10%, they fell 3-6 points among those scoring within the bottom 10%.” Continue reading