Court may open door for vouchers, religious charter schools

It was a big deal when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled just 20 years ago that states could legally provide tuition vouchers for students to attend private, religious schools. Now the court is poised to take a more radical step.

It’s likely to rule that denying public funding to religious schools is unconstitutional, at least in some circumstances. The question is, how far will the ruling go? Experts expect the court to overturn a Maine program that pays for student tuition at some private schools but excludes religious schools. But the decision could be written to apply more broadly.

Supreme Court Building

The case, Carson v. Makin, involves a program that affects a handful of rural Maine school districts that are too small to support a local high school. The state pays for students in those areas to attend a nearby public school or private school. In 1980, citing concerns about separation of church and state, Maine barred religious schools from participating.

Parents eventually sued, arguing that denying them funding to attend a religious school was discriminatory and violated the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. The court heard oral arguments in December 2021 and is expected to issue its decision this month.

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Bad news, good news in Louisville

I can’t decide whether to be disappointed or encouraged by the big education news out of Louisville this month. Both reactions seem appropriate.

It’s disappointing, certainly, that Jefferson County Public Schools have thrown in the towel on a nearly 50-year effort to desegregate schools in Louisville and the surrounding area. But it’s encouraging that the district’s new student assignment plan claims to prioritize helping Black and low-income students.

JCPS logo

In case you missed it – and the development inexplicably got almost zero news coverage outside of Louisville – the JCPS board voted unanimously to end an assignment system that bused some of the district’s 96,000 students away from their neighborhoods to promote socioeconomic diversity.

In its place, the board adopted a plan that will let all students – Black as well as white, poor as well as privileged – attend schools near where they live. The plan, created with guidance and eventual approval from the Black community, including the NAACP and an association of retired Black educators, also devotes more resources to schools in the city’s predominantly Black West End.

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A legislator, a university and school vouchers

No one has done more than Rep. Bob Behning to shape Indiana’s wide-open system of school choice, including what’s arguably the most generous private-school voucher program in the country. Now Behning’s employer is tapping into that system as it launches an online private school.

Marian University Preperatory Academy will open in the fall of 2022, according to a news release from Marian University, a private, Catholic institution in Indianapolis. The school, described as “flexible” and “faith-focused,” will operate in a partnership with for-profit Stride Inc.

Tuition will be $9,500 a year for the school’s hybrid program, which will include in-person and online instruction; and $7,500 for its fully virtual program. The school’s FAQ section provides guidance for applying for Indiana’s voucher program, which can help pay tuition for families at most income levels.

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Polls shows faith in public schools

If ever there was a time for parents and the American public to turn against public schools, you’d think this would be it. But two recent polls show it hasn’t happened.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted schooling for a year and a half, forcing children to learn online. Schools have been under relentless attack for requiring masks and teaching about racism. State legislators have bashed public schools as they pushed to expand school choice.

But the polls, by PDK International and Education Next, show continued strong support for and satisfaction with local public schools, both from parents and the public. This continues a longstanding trend in which respondents are critical of the nation’s schools but give local schools high marks.

PDK International, also known as Phi Delta Kappa, is an organization of educators that tends to favor public schools. Education Next, a journal committed to “bold change,” tends to be critical of public schools. Both polls, conducted in May, June and July, produced similar findings.

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Voucher program is state-funded religious education

Remember when Indiana Republicans said vouchers would let disadvantaged students find alternatives to “failing” public schools? Times sure have changed. Advocates no longer pretend Indiana’s voucher program is about improving education. It’s about funding private religious schools, plain and simple.

For evidence, see this article in Today’s Catholic, a publication of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Joseph Brettnacher, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, explains the benefits of a voucher program expansion that state lawmakers approved this year:

“The most important aspect of the choice expansion is that more families will have the ability to send their children to faith-based schools, where students can develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ within his mystical body, the Church,” Brettnacher says. “Our goals for students are to create disciples of Jesus Christ, help them fulfill their destiny to become saints and reach heaven.”

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Moneyed interests call the shots

They say legislators are supposed to represent the people who elect them, but what, exactly, does that mean? Do they represent the people who voted for them? The people who live in their districts?

Or do they look out for the businesses and organizations that made their election possible through campaign contributions? Judging by the actions of the Indiana General Assembly, it may be the latter.

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Governor unclear on school choice

Gov. Eric Holcomb made a vague nod in both directions of the school choice divide in his State of the State address Tuesday. As usual, he’s playing his cards close to the vest.

“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it,” he said. “But at the same time, those options shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children.”

Both parts of that statement could use clarification. When the governor says parents “deserve to have options,” it sounds like he might support expanding access to private school vouchers or adding other choice options, which are likely to be debated in the 2021 legislative session.

It’s not clear what he means that “they pay for it,” however. It’s true that parents pay taxes to support schools, but so does everyone else. If he’s talking about parents who pay their own money for private school tuition, they already have that option, regardless of what the state does.

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‘School choice’ and public schools

Here’s a little secret about school choice in Indiana: Public schools lose more students to other public school districts than to charter schools or private school vouchers.

According to the Indiana Department of Education’s fall 2020 Public School Corporation Transfer Report, 70,394 Hoosier students transferred from one public school district to another this year. That compares with 44,569 who attend charter schools and 35,150 who attend private schools using state-funded tuition vouchers, the options we think of as “school choice.”

Until a few years ago, Indiana didn’t see so many public-school transfers. School district operations were partially funded by local property taxes. Students could transfer from one district to another, but they were expected to pay “transfer tuition” to cover the costs.

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Voucher growth levels off

The number of students who received private school vouchers in Indiana leveled off last year, marking a possible end to voucher program’s steady growth.

Students enrolled in the program at the start of the 2019-20 school year declined slightly from the previous year. But the state added a second signup period, and some students enrolled late, resulting in a slight increase.

Cover page of voucher reportAccording an Indiana Department of Education report, 36,707 students received vouchers last year. That’s a little over 3% of the state’s K-12 students.

Indiana awarded $172.8 million in vouchers in 2019-20, up from $161.4 million the previous year. Over the program’s nine-year history, state spending for private school vouchers has now topped $1 billion.

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Report shows scope of school choice

CLARIFICATION: The transfer report counts 5,407 students who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools District and who attend IPS “innovation network schools” as having transferred out of the district to charter schools. (Innovation network schools are part of IPS but operate much like charter schools and have their own school boards). If those students were counted as attending IPS schools, the proportion of state-funded students in the district who attend IPS schools would be 66.5%

Nearly 14% of state-funded K-12 students in Indiana attend schools other than public schools in their local school district, according to a report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education.

Some attend charter schools. Some attend private schools with help from state-funded tuition vouchers. But many transfer to public schools outside the district where they live, an option that has become increasingly common in the past decade.

Some districts are hurt especially hard by school choice. In Gary Community Schools, only 36.4% of students who live in the district attend local public schools. In the Indianapolis Public Schools district, the figure is barely half.

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