Are voucher students improving?

Mar 28, 2017 by

When supporters laid the groundwork for what would become Indiana’s vast private school voucher program, they made a simple promise: Provide Hoosier schoolchildren in struggling public schools access to a better education.

For the most part, that promise has come true. Today, the state has the largest voucher program in the nation, routing $520 million in public funds to private schools since 2011 and helping a record number of 34,000 students this year attend private schools.

That said, about five percent of voucher students are actually going to schools with F-ratings — private schools that face gentler consequences than their failing public counterparts.

And there is another, deeper concern: The state isn’t required to analyze the academic performance of individual students as they make the transition from a public school to a private voucher school. Therefore, it doesn’t know whether access to better schools actually has resulted in higher academic achievement for any particular student.

No one knows that answer — even as Indiana is touted as a national model amid a push by President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to expand school choice nationally.

State lawmakers don’t know. Nor teachers. Nor taxpayers, who have watched as hundreds of millions of dollars have been diverted from public to private schools over the past six years.

That big unknown hasn’t stopped the Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly from letting the program grow rapidly  — or prompted it to maintain a more limited program until it has a better understanding of the impact on individual students.

A private study by the University of Notre Dame soon is expected to provide some answers. And pressure for greater insight into the program’s outcomes is mounting — even within the GOP.

“When I was a superintendent at the local level, it would have been irresponsible of me to run programs without reviewing programs and especially those that you put a lot of resources into as far as financially and otherwise,” said Jennifer McCormick, a Republican recently elected as the state schools chief.

“I think it would be responsible of Indiana now that we have trend data for several years to really take a look at what was the intent of the program. Is it servicing students it’s intended to serve? Are we seeing a change in opportunity for students?”

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