School vouchers and ‘learning loss’

Pundits have been wringing their hands over the “learning loss” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the largest decline in decades.

But if people care about what kids are and aren’t learning, they should be every bit as alarmed by the private school voucher programs that are spreading across the country.

That’s according to Joshua Cowen, a Michigan State University education policy professor. He’s been studying vouchers and following the research for two decades, and he says the evidence is crystal clear that voucher programs don’t work when it comes to helping students learn.

In a recent episode of “Have You Heard,” an education podcast, he said thorough evaluations of large-scale voucher programs – in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. – found overwhelmingly negative effects on learning as measured by test scores.

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Vouchers prop up private schools

I’ve always thought that one of the motivations behind Indiana’s school voucher program was to create a taxpayer bailout for private schools, especially struggling Catholic schools. If that’s the case, it seems to have worked.

Enrollment for the state’s Catholic schools has held steady for the past 10 years, roughly the period that vouchers have been in place. Overall enrollment in accredited private schools has increased by 16%.

Contrast that with what’s happened elsewhere. Across the United States, enrollment in Catholic K-12 schools declined by 21.3% in the past 10 years, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic school enrollment peaked in the early 1960s at 5.2 million; it’s now about 1.7 million.

A recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows how this trend continues in St. Louis, where Catholic school enrollment has shrunk by half since 2000. The local archdiocese is embarking on a plan to close and consolidate schools, but that will be tricky, according to a community survey.

In Indiana, vouchers also cushioned the blow to private schools from the growth of charter schools. Indiana started charter schools in 2002 and greatly expanded them in 2011. They have grown explosively, especially in Indianapolis and Gary.

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Indiana voucher cost nears quarter billion dollars

Indiana awarded $241.4 million in the 2021-22 school year to pay tuition and fees for students to attend private schools. That’s 44% more than the state spent on vouchers the previous year.

The increase, detailed in a Department of Education report, isn’t surprising. The Indiana General Assembly in 2021 vastly expanded the voucher program, opening it to families near the top of the state’s income scale and making the vouchers significantly more generous.

Cover of 2021-22 Indiana voucher report.

Nearly all the 330 private schools that received voucher funding are religious schools. Some discriminate against students, families and employees because of their religion, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Indiana is bankrolling bigotry.

And many of the families receiving vouchers could pay private school tuition without public assistance. Some 20% of voucher households last year had an income of $100,000 or more, well above Indiana’s median household income of about $58,000.

The voucher program, created in 2011, was sold as a way to help children from poor families opt out of “failing” public schools. Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s governor at the time and a leading voucher advocate, said students should attend a public school for two semesters to qualify, giving public schools a chance to show what they could do.

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Court rules for religious schools

It’s no surprise that the Supreme Court has taken another step to support public funding of religion. It had already been moving that direction with rulings in 2017 and 2020. But today’s decision, in Carson v. Makin, is still a big deal, and it leaves open several questions for the court to address.

The court ruled today that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a small program that provides tuition vouchers for students in isolated rural areas to attend private secondary schools. Doing so, it said, violates the First Amendments requirement of religious freedom.

“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious,” Chief Justice John Roberts writes for the 6-3 majority. “That is discrimina­tion against religion.”

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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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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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Voucher program got smaller

Indiana’s school voucher program got a bit smaller in the 2020-21 school year, according to the annual voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

The number of students who received vouchers to pay tuition at private K-12 schools dropped by just over 1,000 to 35,698, a 2.75% decrease. The 10-year-old voucher program grew rapidly in its early years, but its growth stalled more recently.

Of course, everything changes with the school year that’s now getting underway. The legislature voted in the spring to expand the voucher program, opening the door to more middle- and upper-income families. Private schools are eagerly promoting the expansion.

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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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No more excuses to not fund schools

Indiana legislators will have to work hard to find excuses to underfund K-12 schools now that a state revenue forecast showed they will have a lot more money to spend.

The forecast, which dropped Thursday, says the state will take in about $2 billion more than anticipated in the two-year budget cycle that starts in July. That’s enough to make significant investments in education while doing a better job of meeting other state spending needs.

Lawmakers may argue otherwise, but the evidence is overwhelming that Indiana schools are poorly funded – and that the lack of money means Indiana teachers are underpaid compared to their peers.

  • Ball State economist Michael Hicks has pointed out that Indiana’s per-pupil school spending has declined by 7% since 2010 in real terms. If we had just kept pace with inflation, he wrote, we would have spent an extra $1.3 billion on education last year.
  • A recent school-funding analysis by the Shanker Institute and the Rutgers Graduate School of Education found that Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for “fiscal effort,” the percentage of its economic capacity that it spends on schools.
  • A teacher pay commission appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb found that Indiana needs to find $600 million a year in revenue or savings to raise teacher salaries to the same level as surrounding states.
  • A 2019 study commissioned by the Indiana State Teachers Association was even more pessimistic, concluding Indiana needs to spend $1.5 billion more per year to catch up.

Prior to Thursday’s revenue forecast, the Indiana House and Senate had approved separate versions of the budget that included only minimal increases in K-12 spending. The House budget would direct nearly 40% of the increase to an expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program. The Senate version dialed back the voucher expansion but still committed significant funding to private schools.

The voucher expansion seems certain to happen, despite massive opposition from supporters of public schools. The only questions are how big it will be and how much it will cost.

But overall funding for K-12 education is now an open question. Advocates say the surprise jump in revenue should make this a no-brainer. The Indiana State Teachers Association is calling on budget writers to “go big on K-12 funding and do what’s best for our schools.” Assistant Democratic Senate Leader Eddie Melton said, “We are now within reach of implementing Gov. Holcomb’s teacher pay commission recommendation to put $600 million a year in the school funding formula.”

Republicans, who dominate the legislature, were already starting to drag their feet. They will claim the positive revenue forecast results from their own “fiscal discipline,” but it’s also due to the $1,400 stimulus checks and the additional child tax credits provided by the feds via the American Rescue Plan. And they won’t expect that to last.

Senate President Rod Bray said legislators must “be wary of the day when the economy begins to turn, because we dare not expect this economy to last forever.”

It’s the same old song from Indiana’s Republican politicians: When times are bad, we can’t spend money on schools, because we don’t have it. When times are good, we can’t spend money, because good times won’t last. You would almost think that education isn’t a priority.