Big costs, little oversight for voucher program

Indiana spent over $131 million last year on tuition vouchers for students to attend private K-12 schools. But the state provides almost no fiscal oversight for the voucher program, according to a recent report from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Schools that participate in the program aren’t audited. There’s no public reporting or accounting of how they spend the public money they receive. It’s hard even for scholars to track down detailed data that would give a full picture of how the program operates and what it costs taxpayers.

And the lack of oversight and accountability is just one of several ways in which the Indiana program differs from established school voucher programs in Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., the report finds. Other differences include:

  • Indiana is unusually generous, offering vouchers to more categories of students.
  • Its treatment of special education is unusual, letting parents of special-needs students with vouchers decide if the private school or local public school will provide services.
  • Budgeting is opaque, with funding coming from overall education appropriations rather than a separate line for vouchers in the state budget.

CEEP’s Indiana voucher report is tied to a larger report, “Follow the Money: A Comprehensive Review of the Funding Mechanisms of Voucher Programs in Six Cases,” released last week by the IU research center. Authors are research associate Molly Stewart and graduate research assistant Jodi Moon.

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Study: Louisiana vouchers produce poor results

A new study of a Louisiana school voucher program should get attention in Indiana, where a five-year-old voucher program continues to grow rapidly with little oversight from state officials.

The study, published in December 2015 as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that Louisiana students who get state-funded vouchers to pay private school tuition perform much worse on standardized tests than if they had stayed in public schools.

The voucher program, called the Louisiana Scholarship Program or LSP, was established as a pilot program in 2008 and greatly expanded by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012. According to the study:

Attendance at an LSP-eligible private school lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and increases the likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large. The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children.

A 50 percent increase in the likelihood of getting a failing score in math is a lot. Lowering scores by 0.4 standard deviation is harder for us non-statisticians to grasp. But note that it’s five to 10 times as big an effect as the charter-school test-score gains that are touted as meaningful by the Stanford-based CREDO research organization. So yes, it should get notice. Continue reading

Less than meets the eye to ISTEP results

There’s not much to say about Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP scores, released this week, except that they went down. Way down.

In the spring of 2014, 74.7 percent of Hoosier students in grades 3-8 were able to pass both the math and English/language arts sections of the test. In the spring of 2015, that fell to 53.5 percent.

Of course, it was a different test, tied to a different set of standards, and with very different “cut scores” for passing set by the Indiana State Board of Education. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and other officials warned the passing rates would drop dramatically, and they were right.

And the scores fell pretty much across the board. Every one of Indiana’s 289 public school corporations saw its overall passing rate decline by 10 percentage points or more.

Yes, some dropped more than others. It’s tempting to focus on which districts saw their passing rates drop a lot and which dropped a little and to think that would tell us something about school performance. But it may not.

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Seattle teachers bargain for students; Indiana teachers can’t

Congratulations to Seattle’s teachers. After a five-day strike, they won a contract that increases teacher pay by 9.5 percent over three years. Just as significantly, the deal includes benefits for students: guaranteed recess and the creation of panels to address racial disparities in discipline and learning.

It would be nice to think Indiana teachers and school boards might follow that example and bargain for contract provisions that help children. But they can’t. It’s against the law.

Thanks to school reform laws that the state legislature approved in 2011, teacher collective bargaining in Indiana can deal with salary, wages and fringe benefits – and nothing else.

Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels led the fight to limit collective bargaining, ridiculing teacher contracts for focusing on trivia. Unions go too far, he said, “when they dictate the color of the teachers’ lounge, who can monitor recess, or on what days the principal is allowed to hold a staff meeting.”

No doubt some contracts were loaded with red tape. When there’s no money on the table, sometimes you bargain for other things. But the idea that teachers would only bargain for side benefits that are bad for kids – pushed implicitly by Daniels and some legislators – doesn’t add up. As an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist told lawmakers in 2011, teachers’ working conditions tend to be students’ learning conditions.

The Seattle contract, which teachers and other school employees approved Sunday, also includes changes in school-day and teacher-evaluation rules and creation of a district-union committee to study ways to reduce the impact of excessive testing. The vote was strongly in favor of the deal despite concerns that teacher pay falls short in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country.

Some experts say the agreement, with its focus on what’s good for students, is a harbinger of things to come. “Teachers are positioning themselves to be about much more than raising their own pay,” University of Illinois professor Bob Bruno told the Associated Press.

But if student-focused bargaining becomes a trend, Indiana will be left behind.


Why Indiana has charter schools and Kentucky doesn’t

Indiana has one of the most active charter school programs in the nation while Kentucky has no charter schools, not even a law that allows them. How did that come about?

Sociologist Joe Johnston attributes the divergence to perceptions of public schools in the state’s biggest cities: negative for Indianapolis and generally positive for Louisville. And he traces those perceptions back to district boundary decisions made 40 years ago.

“It’s become so common to think of urban schools as failing, as these places that can’t possibly succeed,” he told me. “It’s interesting that, when you change the boundaries and have a different sort of school district, people can rally around that.”

Johnston, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, conducted research on the history of charter school debates in Indiana and Kentucky as a graduate student at Indiana University, where he received a doctorate in May. He presented his study Saturday in Chicago at the 110th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Indiana adopted a charter school law in 2001 and has seen a rapid spread of charter schools. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranks it as one of the most charter-friendly states in the country. But Kentucky, which is contiguous with and politically and demographically similar to Indiana, is one of a handful of states without charter schools.

To understand how that came about, Johnston conducted a detailed comparison of education policy development in the two states from 2002-12. He analyzed 2,200 newspaper articles, gubernatorial and mayoral speeches and school reform group documents.

In Indiana, he shows, the push for charter schools was intimately tied to the argument that Indianapolis Public Schools were failing. This squares with what I saw as a reporter covering the Statehouse during the charter debates. Just like elsewhere across the country, charter schools were sold as an alternative to failing urban schools – specifically IPS.

But in Kentucky, there wasn’t the same sentiment that public schools in Louisville were under-performing; there was nothing like the hand-wringing and finger-pointing directed at IPS. While Indiana and other states rushed to create charter school programs, Kentucky held out.

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Why lawmakers repealed voucher cost calculation

One of the selling points when Indiana’s school voucher program was created in 2011 was that it would save money — because students who got vouchers for private-school tuition would cost the state less than if they attended their local public schools.

Legislators even wrote a formula for calculating the savings and included it in the state budget, along with a plan for distributing the extra money to public schools.

But the savings disappeared as the state expanded the voucher program to include many students who had never attended a public school. The savings became a cost – and the cost grew, reaching $40 million in the 2014-15 school year.

How did state legislators respond? By repealing the cost calculation formula.

The formula was part of the state budgets in 2011 and 2013. It was in the 2015 budget bill introduced early this year in the House. But lawmakers deleted the language before approving the budget in April.

Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, told me it was proper to dump the formula because it no longer works now that the mix of voucher students has changed.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to calculate the savings in that format,” he said.

Here’s how the formula works. First you take the students who used vouchers to transfer out of public schools and calculate how much their schooling would have cost the state if they had stayed in public schools. Then you subtract what the state spends on vouchers. That’s the savings – or, if the result is negative, the cost.

Vouchers pay either 90 percent or 50 percent of per-pupil spending for the student’s local public school, depending on family income. So for a student who qualifies for a voucher and moves from a public school to a private school, the state saves 10 percent or 50 percent of the cost.

In the first year of the program, nearly all voucher students previously attended public schools – so vouchers initially produced a savings. But that has changed. The legislature expanded the program in 2013 to award vouchers to students who would otherwise attend “failing” public schools, students in special education, and siblings of prior voucher recipients, even if they hadn’t attended public schools.

And perhaps more significantly, private schools figured out they could qualify students for vouchers by awarding them tuition assistance from state-sanctioned “scholarship granting organizations.” That became the fastest-growing segment of the voucher student population.

In 2014-15, fully half the 29,148 students who received vouchers had never attended an Indiana public school. Among first-time voucher recipients, 80 percent hadn’t attended a public school. Using the state cost calculation formula, those students are pure cost to the state – no savings.

The Indiana Department of Education, following the budget law, has included the savings or cost in annual reports on the voucher program, the most recent of which was released this month. Going forward, it could still calculate and report the voucher program’s cost. But the law won’t require it.

Department spokesman Daniel Altman said it’s too early to say what future reports will include. “However, we will ensure that we provide an accurate reporting on the program to the public,” he said.

Voucher supporters, including some legislators and the advocacy group Hoosiers for Quality Education, dispute the claim that the program cost $40 million last year.

For calculating costs, the question is whether voucher students would have attended public schools if it weren’t for vouchers. If they would have, then the program would still save the state money. But if their parents always intended to send them to private schools and are simply taking advantage of vouchers to make it cheaper or free, they are an added cost.

Behning argues that, in most cases, it’s the former. He said families with incomes modest enough to qualify for vouchers couldn’t afford private school tuition without the assistance.

He posited a four-person family that qualifies for full vouchers with an income of $44,000. With two children in private school, tuition might cost 20 percent of the family’s income.

“There’s no way those parents are going to be able to afford private school tuition,” Behning said. Without vouchers, “those kids would have been in public school.”

But Indiana’s income guidelines to qualify for vouchers are extraordinarily generous. A family of five that makes over $77,000 can qualify for partial vouchers. Once they qualify, a family of five whose income rises to $100,000 can keep getting vouchers. Probably it could afford private school.

Single-parent families and families with two working parents are used to scraping together money to cover child care or preschool costs. And child care is often more expensive than private school tuition, which ranges locally from $3,500 to $7,000. (Behning noted that some voucher families would also receive government preschool assistance; but some certainly would not).

Also, as State Impact Indiana reported last week, voucher numbers have exploded in some areas, such as Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, without a corresponding drop in local public school enrollment. That suggests vouchers are going to families that always planned to choose private schools.

Behning said cost should ultimately be a secondary consideration in evaluating whether Indiana’s voucher program is fulfilling its purpose. “The goal was to provide parents with the best choice of school, whether it be public, private or charter,” he said.

And I agree that cost shouldn’t be primary. Indiana provides state funding for private schools that aren’t accountable to the public, that can discriminate in admissions and that teach religious doctrine and, in some cases, controversial views of history and current events. That’s either good public policy or it isn’t.

Report: Indiana vouchers a bad deal for students, public

A report released this week by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability puts 28 pages of research and data behind what public education advocates have been saying for years: Indiana’s school voucher program is a bad deal for the public and it’s not providing academic benefits to students.

Drawing on published studies and details about the Indiana program, the report addresses the question of whether private school choice in Indiana is leading to better educational outcomes for children and whether it’s an efficient use of public funds at a time when state budgets are constrained.

“As it turns out, the answer is no, when ideology is put aside and evidence of what has worked to enhance student achievement is used as a barometer,” it says.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability is a Chicago-based think tank that generally supports progressive policies. Ralph Martire, the center’s executive director, and Indiana legislators who have opposed vouchers presented the findings in a Statehouse news conference.

Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, attacked the report in an article posted later Tuesday, accusing it of using data selectively and misrepresenting school-choice studies.

The CTBA report relies heavily on a large nationwide study of public, charter and private schools by University of Illinois professors Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, published in 2006. The research “clearly shows that students who attend traditional, K-12 public schools outperform students who attend both charter schools and private religious schools,” it says. Continue reading