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.

Scholars show how to challenge voucher discrimination

It’s widely known that private schools that receive state-funded tuition vouchers may discriminate against students and families on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. Shouldn’t that be illegal? A law journal article suggests it may be.

The article, “Covenants to Discriminate,” argues that voucher programs like Indiana’s could be vulnerable to a legal challenge focused on a state’s role in supporting discrimination. Preston Green of the University of Connecticut, Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University Bloomington are authors of the article, published in the New Hampshire Law Review.

Green, the lead author, said supporters promote vouchers to expand opportunities for students and families. But, as the programs expand, state officials often enable them to deny those benefits to entire groups of students.

Photo of Preston Green
Preston Green. (University of Connecticut photo).

“Vouchers were sold as program that all could benefit from, but the anti-LGBT provisions give the lie to that statement,” Green said.

Voucher programs come in a variety of forms, but all provide ways for states to provide full or partial tuition funding to private schools for qualifying students. Indiana’s program, established in 2011, serves over 36,000 students in more than 300 private schools, nearly all of them religious schools, at a cost of $172.8 million. Lawmakers want to expand the program and extend it to upper-income families.

Articles by Eckes and Mead, as well as news media reports, have shown that some voucher schools refuse to admit students who are gay or transgender, students with disabilities, and students whose families won’t sign statements that endorse religious dogma. But the Constitution typically doesn’t address discrimination by private parties, such as private schools. A challenge would have to show that “state action” is depriving students of their rights to equal protection or due process of law.

Green, Mead and Eckes examine several theories of state action and identify two that seem promising. One is that states are, in effect, compelling private-school actions that include discriminating against students. The other is that the states enforce practices and policies that include discrimination.

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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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Sounding the alarm on threats to public schools

It’s no secret that public education is under attack, in Indiana and in other states. But it’s easy to miss just how radical and well organized the assault is – and how it is part of a longstanding political drive to undermine the very concept of the common good.

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain in their new book, “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.” They show how free-market ideologues, driven by hostility to government and fueled by deep-pocketed donors, are endangering a cornerstone of American democracy.

“The threat to public education … is grave,” they write. “A radical vision for unmaking the very idea of public schools has moved from the realm of ideological pipe dream to legitimate policy.”

Berkshire, a journalist, and Schneider, an education historian, make their case in a clear, readable style that echoes their casual give-and-take on the education podcast “Have You Heard?” They draw from U.S. education history, studies and policy briefs, and recent news stories to make their case.

“A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” focuses on a fundamental debate on the nature of schools. Education, the authors argue, is best treated as a public good that belongs to everyone.

“Like clean air, a well-educated populace is something with wide-reaching benefits,” Berkshire and Schneider write. “That’s why we treat public education more like a park than a country club. We tax ourselves to pay for it, and we open it to everyone.”

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