Why lawmakers repealed voucher cost calculation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.

Preschool bill is one baby step for Hoosier-kind

It’s a start. A tiny one, for sure. But to use a cliché that for once is totally appropriate, you’ve got to walk before you can run. And in Indiana, we’re barely crawling when it comes to early childhood education.

House Bill 1004, which establishes a state-funded pilot program to help low-income parents send their children to preschool, was approved Thursday by the state House and Senate. The measure limits the program to five counties in its first year. It can be expanded later if lawmakers agree.

Best of all, the legislature dropped a provision that would have made participating preschoolers eligible for vouchers to attend private K-12 schools as they get older. As initially approved by the House, the bill had the potential to eventually make nearly half of Indiana students eligible for private-school vouchers.

Votes for the final version of the bill were 92-8 in the House and 40-8 in the Senate, with all the no votes by Republicans. It now goes to Gov. Mike Pence, who can sign it and claim the legislature approved one of his signature initiatives. Continue reading

Lawmaker: Board of Education disregarded legislative intent with IREAD-3

Was the Indiana State Board of Education just complying with the wishes of the Legislature when it adopted a rule last year that says third-graders must be retained if they don’t pass a reading test? Not according to the author of the bill in question.

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters that lawmakers clearly weren’t saying kids should be held back on the basis of their performance on a single test.

“The state superintendent and board of education essentially usurped what we said we wanted done as a legislature,” he said. “They went beyond the intent of the legislation.”

Porter was chairman of the House Education Committee in 2010, and in that role he was the lead sponsor of HEA 1367 – also known as Public Law 109 — which called for for improving reading skills for students in primary grades.

The legislation, Porter said, was a compromise that reflected strong reservations about the push by Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett to require students to pass a reading test in order to be promoted to fourth grade. It said retention should be used only as a last resort.

Porter said lawmakers were aware of research showing that students who are held back are much less likely to graduate from high school, and they also questioned implementing such high-stakes accountability when Indiana trailed other states in funding early-childhood education. Continue reading

Politics prevail as Indiana House passes school voucher bill

The Indiana House passed the controversial school voucher bill on Wednesday, just two days after a report from Wisconsin threw cold water on the claim that vouchers will improve educational opportunities for students.

The House voted 56-42, mostly along party lines, for the measure, House Bill 1003. Three Republicans — Tom Saunders, Phil Hinkle and Wendy McNamara – joined 39 Democrats in voting no. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it may face a more skeptical and less partisan reception.

The Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice hailed the House vote, saying the bill, if passed into law, would create “the nation’s broadest voucher program, allowing low- and middle-income families to use taxpayer funds to send their children to the private school of their choice.”

While most voucher programs in the U.S. are targeted to urban areas, failing schools and poor children, the Indiana bill would give state money to any low- and middle-income parents who transfer their children to private schools, including religious schools. Families would be eligible if their income is up to 150 percent of the cutoff for reduced-price school lunches – about $62,000 for a family of four.

The bill limits the number of vouchers to 7,500 in 2011-12 and 15,000 in 2012-13. It requires private schools that accept vouchers to take part in state accountability and teacher-evaluation programs.

House Democrats tried to moderate the bill with dozens of amendments, but Republicans shot them down, one after another. This was on Tuesday, the same day the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Continue reading