Latest voucher gimmick: Education Savings Accounts

Give Indiana Republican legislators points for resourcefulness. They keep finding new ways to undermine public schools by expanding the state’s school voucher program. The latest, and arguably the most egregious, is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, state-funded accounts to pay for private schooling and other expenses.

Senate Bill 534, scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would create ESAs for the families of special-needs students who choose not to attend public school and don’t receive a private-school voucher.

The state would fund the ESAs with money that would otherwise go to the public schools where the students would be eligible to enroll — typically about $6,000 per student but potentially quite a bit more for some special-needs students. Then the students’ families could decide where to spend the money: private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other services from providers approved by the State Board of Education.

SB 534 would cost the state between $144 million and $206 million a year, according to a fiscal impact statement from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This is at a time when legislators are arguing about whether Indiana can afford $10 million to expand a popular  pre-kindergarten program.

Unlike with Indiana’s existing voucher program, there’s no income requirement for qualifying for the proposed Education Savings Accounts. So if Joe Billionaire has a special-needs child and wants to send the child to a private school, we the taxpayers would providing funding.

As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes, the legislation is right out of the late economist Milton Friedman’s plan “to take public schools out of our society and leave education to a marketplace of private schools, all funded by the taxpayers but without government oversight.”

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Pre-K and vouchers: not a good combination

Excuse the language, but Indiana House Republicans served up a classic shit sandwich with House Bill 1004, their legislation to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program. Stuffed inside the bill is language that would provide yet another route for students to become eligible for the state’s school voucher program.

Under the legislation, students who participate in the pre-K program for low-income families would become eligible for a voucher to help pay private school tuition. They would stay eligible as long as their family income continued to meet the program’s requirements.

The House Education Committee approved the bill last week on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the education panel.

Seen as pure politics, HB 1004 of a slick move. Democrats have pushed for years to expand state support for pre-K. But as backers of public schools, they oppose vouchers. They’re in the awkward position of having to vote against one of their long-time priorities.

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Voucher programs go beyond what court approved

The U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to school vouchers in the 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, clearing the way for states to create programs that provide public funding for religious schools.

But the Zelman decision addressed a specific program that served children from poor families in Cleveland. And the voucher programs that have proliferated in the past 15 years look very different and serve different purposes from the local Cleveland program.

United States Supreme Court Building

United States Supreme Court Building

The court ruled 5-4 that the Cleveland voucher program didn’t constitute a state endorsement of religion – and thus a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment – because the tuition vouchers went to the students’ parents, who then directed the funding to the schools they chose.

Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson relied on similar reasoning in Meredith v. Pence, the March 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that found Indiana’s voucher program did not violate the state constitution’s ban on state funding for religious organizations.

But some of the justifications the Supreme Court cited for supporting vouchers in Zelman don’t apply to many of the two dozen or so voucher programs that now operate in 15 states, with more likely to come.

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Study confirms voucher programs discriminate

Research led by an Indiana University professor confirms what school voucher critics have long argued: Voucher programs receive public funding yet discriminate on the basis of religion, disability status, sexual orientation and possibly other factors.

The finding is especially timely as President Donald Trump and his designee to serve as secretary of education, Michigan school-choice activist Betsy DeVos, have indicated they will use federal clout and money to push states to expand voucher programs.

“At the time we did the study, we had no idea it would be so relevant,” said Suzanne Eckes, professor in the IU School of Education and the lead author of the research paper. “People are starting to think about these questions, and the topic has not been widely addressed in research.”

The study, “Dollars to Discriminate: The (Un)intended Consequences of School Vouchers,” was published last summer in the Peabody Journal of Education. Co-authors are Julie Mead, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jessica Ulm, a doctoral student at IU.

The researchers examined 25 programs in 15 states and Washington, D.C., that provide public funding for private K-12 schools, including traditional tuition voucher programs and voucher-like programs called education savings accounts. Indiana is one of seven states with a statewide voucher program. Other programs are limited to cities (Milwaukee, Cleveland) or special-needs students.

The authors say legislators who authorized the programs neglected to write policies that provide equal access for students and avoid discriminating against marginalized groups.

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School legislation grew from chat at county fair

This is how lawmaking is supposed to work. It starts with a friendly talk with a constituent at the county fair and moves on to legislation given a positive reception in a Senate committee. If things go the way they should, it will end up with a new law that provides modest but important help for public schools.

Senate Bill 30 would require the Indiana Department of Education to report to school districts twice a year on the number of local students receiving tuition vouchers and the private schools they attend. Introduced by Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, it’s scheduled for consideration today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

The idea was hatched last summer, when Koch ran into Laura Hammack, the newly appointed superintendent of the Brown County School Corp., at the school district’s popcorn booth at the Brown County Fair in Nashville.

“It was like 8,000 degrees outside and we were covered in popcorn grease,” Hammack recalled.

Koch asked about school issues, and Hammack said she was concerned the district was losing students and, as a result, losing state funding.

“The outgoing superintendent had shared that he expected us to be down about 40 students,” Hammack said. “That would have been a big hit, but in reality we were down 100 students last fall compared to the prior year. That generates a loss of just over a half million dollars to our general fund.”

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Scores drop when students move to private, magnet schools

Students who leave neighborhood public schools for private or magnet schools tend to fall behind academically in the year after they transfer, according to a new study of school choice in Indianapolis.

Students who move to charter schools don’t fall behind, but neither do they move ahead. Their performance is about the same as if they had stayed in their neighborhood school, the study finds.

The authors of the study, Mark Berends at the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, say the findings don’t discredit the potential benefits of school choice, but they raise questions about the conditions under which choice might be a strategy for improving academic achievement.

“It’s sort of a cautionary tale, that school choice is not a panacea,” said Berends, a professor of sociology and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity.

The study, “School Choice in Indianapolis:  Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools,” has been accepted for publication and posted by the journal Education Finance and Policy.

Berends and Waddington analyzed several years of ISTEP test math and English/language arts scores for Indianapolis students in grades 3-8. The students attended neighborhood and magnet schools in public school districts as well as charter schools and private schools in the city. Magnet schools are public schools organized around themes, such as international engagement, foreign language immersion and Montessori education; students typically apply for admission to the schools.

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Big costs, little oversight for voucher program

Indiana spent over $131 million last year on tuition vouchers for students to attend private K-12 schools. But the state provides almost no fiscal oversight for the voucher program, according to a recent report from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Schools that participate in the program aren’t audited. There’s no public reporting or accounting of how they spend the public money they receive. It’s hard even for scholars to track down detailed data that would give a full picture of how the program operates and what it costs taxpayers.

And the lack of oversight and accountability is just one of several ways in which the Indiana program differs from established school voucher programs in Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., the report finds. Other differences include:

  • Indiana is unusually generous, offering vouchers to more categories of students.
  • Its treatment of special education is unusual, letting parents of special-needs students with vouchers decide if the private school or local public school will provide services.
  • Budgeting is opaque, with funding coming from overall education appropriations rather than a separate line for vouchers in the state budget.

CEEP’s Indiana voucher report is tied to a larger report, “Follow the Money: A Comprehensive Review of the Funding Mechanisms of Voucher Programs in Six Cases,” released last week by the IU research center. Authors are research associate Molly Stewart and graduate research assistant Jodi Moon.

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