Much of initial reporting on a groundbreaking study of Indiana’s school voucher program, including mine, suggested that voucher students do OK academically if they stay in private schools for four years. But a closer look raises questions about that narrative.
The study’s headline finding is that voucher students, on average, fall significantly behind their public-school peers in math performance while faring about the same in English/language arts. Given what we know, that’s really the message policymakers and the public should take from the research.
The study, by Joe Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame, was released Monday. Its findings were covered by National Public Radio, Chalkbeat, Education Week, the Indianapolis Star and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. A headline in the Washington Post was typical: “School voucher recipients lose ground at first, then catch up to peers, studies find.”
But the students who “catch up” are only a handful among voucher students included in the study. The study analyzed test scores for 3,913 students who received vouchers during the first four years of the Indiana program, from 2011-12 to 2014-15. But they had four years of test-score data for only about 5 percent of those students.
Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, is showing herself to be a principled advocate for public schools, even if it means defying Republican orthodoxy on private school vouchers.
After six years of experience with a fast-growing and largely unregulated voucher system, she told National Public Radio reporters, it’s time for Indiana to take a serious look at the program.
“You know, we’re spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it. That is irresponsible,” said McCormick, a Republican who took office in January.
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is out with a new public opinion survey featuring the surprising finding that seven in 10 Indiana registered voters favor school vouchers, which provide taxpayer-funded tuition payments for parents who send their children to private schools.
The survey finds vouchers are popular across the board – even with many Indiana Democrats and with supporters of Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, an outspoken voucher opponent.
If this sounds suspicious, it should. Surveys by other organizations never seem to find anywhere close to that kind of support for vouchers. The recent Hoosier Survey by Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs, for example, found only 39 percent support for vouchers for private or charter schools. Nationally, the 2015 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Poll found only 31 percent support for vouchers.
So as for Friedman Foundation survey, consider the where it’s coming from. The foundation is an advocacy organization whose mission is to bring about the late economist Milton Friedman’s vision of privatizing education through universal state voucher programs that are open to all students.
The Indianapolis-based foundation has been conducting these state opinion surveys for a long time, and somehow they never fail to find strong support for vouchers. Researchers Jon Lorence and Gary Miron analyzed 10 of the Friedman Foundation surveys several years ago and concluded they were plagued with questionable sampling techniques, biased questions and other problems.
“Contrary to the authors’ claims, the data provide little evidence that state public officials will increase their electability by supporting school choice policies,” they wrote in a review for the pro-public education National Education Policy Center. Continue reading
Here’s more evidence the Indiana school voucher program is costing the state money: The number of families attending private schools without vouchers has dropped dramatically since the state expanded the program, while the number of voucher students has exploded.
This suggests that many families who are receiving vouchers never intended to send their kids to public schools – they had or would have chosen private schools regardless, and they’re merely taking advantage of the voucher program to get free or reduced-cost tuition.
According to a report on the program released in June by the Indiana Department of Education, there were 71,415 non-voucher students enrolled in Indiana private schools in 2012-13. By last year, the number had dropped to 55,385.
That’s a 22 percent drop in paying customers in only two years. Either an awful lot of families who could afford private school are deciding it’s not such a good deal and they’re sending their children to public schools. Or a lot of families who had already chosen private schools are getting vouchers.
Meanwhile, the two-year decline of 16,030 in the number of students who are paying full freight for private schools corresponded with a 20,008 increase in the number of students receiving vouchers. Over one-third of Indiana private-school students received vouchers in 2014-15, according to the DOE report.
If voucher students would otherwise be attending Indiana public schools, the program would save the state money, because vouchers are for less than the full cost of educating a student at a public school. But if the students would be attending private schools with or without vouchers, the program costs the state money, because it increases the number of students receiving a state-funded education. Continue reading
The political tiger that used to call itself Hoosiers for Economic Growth has a new name, but it hasn’t changed its stripes. It’s up to the same thing: Funneling money from out-of-state billionaires to state legislative candidates likely to support private-school vouchers.
Now called Hoosiers for Quality Education, the political action committee has spent over a half million dollars this year to influence Indiana elections – including at least $187,500 in large contributions made in the last 10 days to Republican state legislative candidates.
As in the past, the group’s money comes primarily from non-Hoosiers. Some $325,000 – more than half of what it raised this year – was contributed by the American Federation for Children PAC, a pro-voucher group headed by Michigan GOP activist Betsy DeVos.
It got $100,000 from a Hoosier, Fred Klipsch, who organized the group and claimed credit for getting Indiana to adopt school vouchers, expanded charter schools and test-based teacher evaluations in 2011. It also got money from John Bryan, an Oregon industrialist with ties to the Koch Brothers, and Charter Schools USA, the Florida for-profit tapped to run three low-performing Indianapolis schools.
American Federation for Children files its Indiana campaign reports from the Terre Haute office of GOP super lawyer James Bopp, a primary figure behind the Citizens United case in which the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on corporate political giving.
And where does the American Federation for Children PAC get its money? Mostly from heirs to the Walmart fortune, Continue reading
State Sen. John Waterman is as solid a conservative as you’ll find: a former sheriff who is tough on crime, 100 percent pro-gun, stingy with money and endorsed by Indiana Right to Life. He has just one flaw, and for a Republican politician, it’s fatal. He supports unions, including teachers’ unions that back public schools.
That was enough to get him taken out in last week’s GOP primary after representing his rural Western Indiana district since 1994. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce put a target on his back, ostensibly because he voted against the so-called right-to-work law that Indiana adopted in 2012. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity threw in with undisclosed funding for ads.
But key money – big, late contributions that may have helped push his opponent, Eric Bassler, over the top – came from forces whose agenda is promoting private school vouchers. Bassler won with 51.3 percent of the vote, even though the Senate Republican caucus backed Waterman.
Bassler got $15,230 in the week before the election from Hoosiers for Economic Growth, which is not funded by Hoosiers and doesn’t focus on economic growth. It functions as the Indiana arm of American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group led by mega-donor Betsy DeVos.
Now in its third year, Indiana’s school voucher program continues to be primarily about one thing: providing taxpayer support for Christian education.
Look at the numbers. There are 314 Indiana schools that are eligible to receive vouchers, according to the state Department of Education. By my count, only 11 are not religious schools. And only four of the religious schools are not Christian schools.
Indiana’s program has been in the news recently with reports that over 20,000 students applied for vouchers this fall, more than twice as many as last year. It’s now the second-biggest voucher program in the country, on track to surpass Milwaukee and become No. 1.
The growth comes even though, as Stephanie Simon pointed out recently in Politico, “there’s little evidence that the investment (in vouchers) yields academic gains.”
Voucher supporters, like Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully, argue the program is good because it lets more parents choose the school they think is best for their children. But as public-education advocates have begun pointing out, “school choice” is an apt name for the program – because the schools, not just parents, get to choose. Continue reading