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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Study: Learning loss persists for voucher students

Indiana students who used vouchers to transfer to private schools fell behind their public-school peers academically, according to a study by researchers at the universities of Kentucky and Notre Dame.

And the loss of learning persisted for several years. That’s significant, because a preliminary version of the study, made public a year ago, suggested voucher students might catch up if they stayed in private schools for three or four years.

“We don’t see that rebound effect” in the published results, co-author and University of Kentucky professor Joseph Waddington told me. “The test scores remained where they were.”

The study, by Waddington and Notre Dame’s Mark Berends, was published last week in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. It found voucher students saw their scores on the state’s ISTEP-plus mathematics tests fall 0.15 standard deviation behind their peers the year they moved to a private school. They stayed that far behind for their second, third and fourth years in private schools.

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Voucher program a subsidy for religion

The Indiana Department of Education has released its 2017-18 school voucher report, providing more evidence that the state voucher program has evolved into something very different from its original design. It is now a massive government entitlement for religious schools and their students.

Indiana has awarded $154 million this year in private-school tuition vouchers to 35,458 students attending 318 schools. All those numbers are records, and nearly all the voucher schools are religious schools. The program keeps growing, although the growth has slowed.

Voucher advocates claim the program doesn’t cost the state because subsidizing tuition is cheaper than paying for students to attend public school. But many of the students have never attended public school; and there’s no clear evidence that, without vouchers, they would have.

According to the state report, 56.5 percent of students receiving vouchers this year have no record of having attended a public school in Indiana. That percentage grows every year.

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Educators give thumbs-down to school choice

Teachers, principals and superintendents don’t much care for charter schools and vouchers. Not even the ones who voted for Donald Trump for president.

That’s a key take-away from a survey conducted by Education Week and reported by the publication last week. The survey was administered to more than 1,100 educators in September and October.

It found that 74 percent fully or somewhat oppose the creation of charter schools. And 79 percent fully or somewhat oppose publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Among educators who voted for Trump, 64 percent oppose charter schools and 70 percent oppose vouchers — even though Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, have made expanding “school choice” a centerpiece of their education rhetoric.

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Online school leaves students behind

I thought I’d heard it all when it came to questionable practices in the name of school choice. But then I read about Indiana Virtual School. After a seven-month investigation, Chalkbeat Indiana revealed how the online charter school has raked in public money while apparently doing little to educate students.

“One of Indiana’s largest high schools ended this past school year with almost 5,000 students, but no desks and no classrooms,” Chalbeat’s Shaina Cavazos writes. “The school also had very few graduates — 61 out of more than 900 seniors graduated last year. What Indiana Virtual School did have: Tens of millions in state dollars due to come its way over the next two years, and a founder whose for-profit company charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school.”

Some highlights:

  • The school had only 21 teachers for 4,682 students at the end of last school year, a ratio of 222 students per teachers.
  • Just 10 percent of its spending went to instruction while 89 percent went to “support services,” according to data provided to the state. It spent just 7 percent on teacher and staff salaries.
  • It paid about $6 million for management services and office space to AlphaCom Inc., a for-profit company headed until last year by Thomas Stoughton, the school’s founder and leader.

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