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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Advantage, public schools

Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski challenged conventional wisdom when they published research that found public schools were better than private schools at boosting student achievement.

Book cover The Public School AdvantageFive years later, their conclusions have been confirmed several times over – especially by studies of state voucher programs that provide public funding for students to attend private schools.

“In the last four years, every study of student achievement in voucher programs has found large negative impacts, except for a couple of studies that found no impact,” Christopher Lubienski said recently. “The programs are hurting the learning outcomes of children using the vouchers.”

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‘Good schools’ or ‘affluent schools’?

What do we mean by “a good school”?

Is it a school where all children are loved and respected and made to feel safe and valued? Where trained and caring educators know all students can succeed and work hard to help them reach their potential? Where children smile and laugh when they walk through the doors and enjoy being with each other and their teachers?

Or is it a school where most of the students are middle- or upper-class and at least a clear majority are white? Where families can provide their children with healthy food, a comfortable home and enriching after-school activities. Where average test scores are high, and GreatSchools ratings are near the top.

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Audit: Virtual school paid millions to founder’s company

A 2015-16 audit report for Indiana Virtual School was released last week, and it shows the school continued to pay millions of dollars to for-profit companies run by the school’s founder and his son.

Chalkbeat Indiana laid out the details of this arrangements in an investigation published in October 2017. The online charter school, while organized as a nonprofit entity, paid management, administrative and technology fees to AlphaCom Inc., a business run by school founder Thomas Stoughton.

It also paid A Simple Reminder, a business run by Stoughton’s son, for IT and marketing services. Thomas Stoughton, the AlphaCom head, also served as chairman of the Indiana Virtual School board.

In 2015-16, according to the audit report, the school was charged:

  • $6,156,179 by AlphaCom.
  • $1,255,000 by A Simple Reminder.

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Bad week for ‘school choice’

Last week was a bad one for the claim that school choice can cure whatever ails education in Indiana. Choice doesn’t always lead to good outcomes.

Start with the story of Delaware Christian Academy in Muncie. Although the school has received $1.3 million in state voucher funding over five years, enrollment dwindled to six students. The building was condemned after an inspector found students “huddled around a kerosene heater in blankets.”

Then look to Indianapolis Lighthouse East. The charter school’s board voted to shut it down after a review conducted for its authorizer, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, cited problems with low test scores and graduation rates, unqualified teachers and lax discipline.

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