Expanding voucher program would be bad for kids, bad for Indiana

By Steve Hinnefeld

Indiana launched its school voucher program in 2011, supposedly to help children from poor families find alternatives to low-performing public schools.

But it quickly morphed into something else: A state subsidy for religious education and an entitlement program for private school parents.

Now, some legislators and advocates are talking up the idea of universal vouchers in which the state would help pay for any student to attend virtually any private school. They’re apparently trying to keep pace with Arizona, which last year became the first state to implement a universal program.

But vouchers were a bad idea from the start. Rather than doubling down on an ill-conceived project, lawmakers should better support the public schools that educate nine in 10 Hoosier children.

Vouchers are bad for public schools, which lose funding as students choose private schools. They are bad for the state, which wastes money on tuition assistance that many parents don’t need. They are bad for communities, which may lose the cohesion and pride that strong public schools can provide.

Most importantly, they are bad for children. Vouchers are premised on the myth that private schools provide a high-quality education. Often, that’s not true.

Don’t ignore the data

Michigan State University professor Josh Cowen points out there have been four independent high-quality studies of the academic effects of state voucher programs. All of them found students lost ground when they got a voucher and moved from a public to a private school.

These were some of the largest negative impacts on learning that education researchers have seen, Cowen writes. In Louisiana’s program, “student learning loss was almost double what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to test scores more recently, and those voucher results persisted over time.” A study of vouchers in Indiana also found significant setbacks to student learning.

While voucher supporters like to ground their advocacy in libertarian philosophy, vouchers have a sordid history. After the Supreme Court ordered racial desegregation of public schools in 1954, communities across the South opened segregation academies, private schools for white students. In many cases, families received government vouchers to pay tuition and avoid public schools with Black students.

The same principle — state funding for schools that exclude students because of who they are — is fundamental to Indiana’s voucher program. Supporters say vouchers promote “freedom” because students choose their schools. In fact, schools choose their students.

Not the same playing field

Private schools that accept vouchers can’t bar students because of their race, but they can, and often do, discriminate on other grounds.

They can turn students away because of their or their parents’ sexual orientation or gender identity. They can reject students with disabilities and immigrant children who are learning English. They can say no to children who aren’t a “good fit.” They can make families sign a statement of religious faith. They can fire teachers and counselors for being gay.

The state funding propping up this discrimination is significant. Indiana spent $241.1 million on vouchers in 2021-22, paying for more than 44,000 students to attend 330 private schools. And there is little or no accountability for how the money is spent. Unlike public and charter schools, private schools aren’t subject to public audits, their board meetings don’t have to be open and their finances can be secret.

Indiana’s voucher program wastes money because many recipients would have paid for private schooling without a voucher. Currently, a family of five making up to $172,000 can qualify. One in five voucher families in 2021-22 had an income over $100,000.

If Indiana had unlimited finances, this might not matter, but it doesn’t. The $241.1 million the state spent last year on vouchers is coincidentally almost exactly what Indiana should to spend to fix its lackluster public health system. State funding for public schools has also lagged, especially in high-poverty districts. Indiana has ranked low for teacher pay, and schools struggle to hire educators.

The philosophy behind the push for universal vouchers is that education is a private possession, something we shop for as if it were a car. But education is better understood as a public good. We all benefit when children learn the skills to become productive, well-rounded adults. Strong public schools build strong communities and a strong state.

The Indiana Constitution requires the legislature to provide for “a general and uniform system of common schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge and equally open to all.” A universal voucher program would turn that principle on its head. Let’s hope our legislators know better.

A native of Brownstown, Steve Hinnefeld is a retired journalist and communications professional who lives in Bloomington. He writes about education at inschoolmatters.wordpress.com. This column also appeared Thursday on the Indiana Capital Chronicle at indianacapitalchronicle.com.