Indiana’s School Voucher Program–The Back Story

Toward the end of yesterday’s post about high-stakes testing, I noted that its largest-in-the-nation voucher program illustrated Indiana’s penchant for simple answers to complicated questions.

I have friends who sincerely believe that “school choice” will help poor children escape failing public schools, and none of the careful academic research that documents voucher schools’ generally poor academic results convinces them otherwise. “Private” is a word like “shazam!”– magically opening imaginary doors.

Critics of Indiana’s voucher program tend to place the most blame on Mike Pence, but a recent series of articles identifies Mitch Daniels as the political brains behind Indiana’s program. Pence certainly expanded it–and engineered amendments to ensure that religious schools, rather than other private institutions, would be the major beneficiaries. (In Indiana, some 92% of vouchers are used to attend religious schools, virtually all Christian and a sizable number fundamentalist.)

No one who knows Mike Pence, however, would describe him as the brains of any operation. That accolade belongs to Mitch Daniels.

After noting that five years after the program was established, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients had never attended Indiana public schools–failing or not–and that Hoosier taxpayers are now covering private and religious school tuition for children whose parents had previously footed that bill, the author proceeded to describe the voucher program as an outgrowth of a conversation at a dinner party hosted by Steve Hilbert, at which Daniels is quoted as saying “There is no reason even debating the abysmal, atrocious failure of the public school monopoly anymore.”

In the years that followed, three of those dinner guests — Daniels, Pence and Klipsch — would be major players in the quest to privatize traditional public education in Indiana.

Klipsch would start and run a political action committee, Hoosiers for Economic Growth (a.k.a. Hoosiers for Quality Education), that would play a major role in creating a Republican majority in the Indiana House to redistrict the state to assure future Republican control.

In 1996, however, there were no charter schools in Indiana, nor were there virtual schools or vouchers. Neighborhood public schools served communities in a state that had always taken a “liberal and leading role” in providing public education for its children.

Twenty-one years later, Hoosier public schools were showing the effects of 15 years of what the article characterizes as “relentless attack.”

Entire public school systems in Indiana cities, such as Muncie and Gary, had been decimated by funding losses, even as a hodgepodge of ineffective charter and voucher schools sprang up to replace them. Charter school closings and scandals were commonplace, with failing charters sometimes flipped into failing voucher schools. Many of the great public high schools of Indianapolis were closed from a constant churn of reform directed by a “mindtrust” infatuated with portfolio management of school systems.

The author traced the decline to Daniels.

After his election, Daniels quickly laid the groundwork for creating a system based on the belief that the market principle of competition would improve education outcomes and drive down costs. Under the guise of property tax reform, Daniels seized control of school funding by legislating that the state would pay the largest share of district costs known as the general fund, while giving localities the responsibility for paying for debt service, capital projects, transportation and bus replacement. Daniels and the legislature also made sure that districts would be hamstrung in raising their local share by capping property taxes so that they could not exceed 1 percent of a home’s assessed value. The poorer the town, the less money the district could raise.

The remainder of the lengthy article traces the changes to Indiana education made by Daniels and Tony Bennett, his chosen Superintendent of Public Instruction–changes funded by Betsy DeVos’s foundation. I encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety. And weep.

My only quibble is with the author’s obvious belief that Daniels’ assault on public education was motivated by a malevolent intent to privatize the state’s schools. Unlike Pence, Mitch Daniels is a highly intelligent man. He is also thoroughly political and ideological. My guess is that he drank deeply from the well of GOP dogma, and believes–with an almost religious fervor, evidence be damned– that the private sector is always superior to the public sector. (Why so many people who clearly believe this nevertheless spend their professional lives in the public sector is an enduring mystery.)

So here we are. Vouchers have increased religious and racial segregation without improving academic performance. Meanwhile, public schools are struggling to perform without adequate resources, and the state’s underpaid teachers are leaving in droves.

Did Indiana’s schools need improvement? Absolutely. Were vouchers an appropriate or effective remedy? Absolutely not.

That’s what happens when ideology trumps evidence.


  1. I Googled “Hoosiers for Quality Education organized by Klipsch” and was taken to a web site, “School Matters” which was formerly headed by Betsy DeVos. In a report dated October 30, 2018, it states $325,000 was donated to keep the Indiana General Assembly in Republican Control. They do not donate directly to candidates or campaigns but funnel the money through their state partners such as “Hoosiers for Quality Education”. Below I copied and pasted the part Klipsch plays.

    “Fred Klipsch, the founder of Hoosiers for Quality Education, boasted at an American Federation for Children-sponsored policy summit in 2012 that the group and its allies had spent $4.4 million to push an agenda of vouchers, expanded charter schools and other reforms through the state legislature.”

    A lot of vouchers and Republican money have flowed under the bridge since 2012. Those of us who have been paying attention for more than the past 2 1/2 years of Trump and Pence are well aware that the voucher system began with Mitch Daniels who incidentally appointed the majority of Purdue University Board Members and was rewarded by being appointed President of Purdue University. We can easily follow the dots from Daniels to Pence to Klipsch to DeVos to Trump and Pence end at the Alt Right Republican party. Add in the new Indiana 2-year budget, claiming by Republican State Senator Michael Crider’s report that 50% of that budget is slated for K-12 Education plus 15% to Higher Education. We need to know the current connection to “School Matters” 2019 support of our current local Republican House and Senate along with Gov. Holcomb, giving us a Republican Trifecta, and the dumbing down of Indiana’s education system.

    One of the commenters on yesterday’s blog stated that the voucher system works by the state of Indiana writing an $11,000 check to the voucher student. This was Indiana’s Republican Supreme Court consensus when they approved the voucher system as not being against the Constitution…both state and federal. We can follow this line of thinking back to “Hoosiers for Quality Education” and “School Matters”; all of which means the voucher system.

    “Did Indiana’s schools need improvement? Absolutely. Were vouchers an appropriate or effective remedy? Absolutely not.”

    Vote in the 2019 November elections to begin removing Republicans from leadership at the very foundation of our government.

  2. the walton family,aka,walmart,has its black heart set on arkansas,failing systems..seems they,who promote cheap wages,which along with tax cuts and fewer taxes paid,has allowed arkansas schools to be next to bankrupt,like some other states, cure,,, the waltons are going to build private schools.
    imagine now, the teachers will still buy those poorer students,walamrt supplies,and everyone will be happy in walmart land…welcome to the state of walmart,rejoice!

  3. Charter schools are public schools. You are correct that they follow different rules, but they are public and must abide by the constitution.

  4. Here we go again bitching and moaning about the way the Republican Party and their supporters run the sate of Indiana. Instead of preaching to the choir, none of whom read this blog, how about each of us taking this issue to our family and neighbors who are oblivious to the damage being done by the voucher system? It is way past time for liberals to stand up and be counted.

  5. Hilbert, Klipsch, Daniels. Our wolves, errr, leaders here in Indiana have done so much good for their flock, errr, home state. No doubt all that “drinking deeply from the well” of young tail/old hooch, errr, liberty inspired them.

  6. Imagine the commotion if a group of Muslims started a Madrassa in Indiana and wanted the students to qualify for vouchers. That might wake up the justices on the state’s Supreme Court who drank the Kool Aid which claimed that the money was not going to fund religion; it was going to the parents, who made the decision where to spend it.

  7. There are private charter schools, and public charter schools. The ones in Indiana are private and that is a different animal.

  8. I can see why Mitch was upset about public schools. After all, he learned his basic math at public school and he used what he learned to estimate that the Iraq War would cost between $50 – $60 billion, instead of the $5.6 trillion it has cost us. Obviously he had an inferior education that was so inferior, it couldn’t be helped by his years at Princeton.

  9. The ultimate culprits are Milton Friedman (Supply-Side Economics) and Ronald Reagan (Just barely smart enough to be a “B” movie actor). Linking a charming, but inept mind with a failed economic theory creates a social disaster.

    Have you noticed that every time we elect a Republican as President along with a Republican Congress, that our society crumbles just a bit more? So, yes, I for one will lambaste Republicans and their “idea” of government until they start governing for ALL of us instead of just their donors.

  10. Public schools are not failing! We have to stop that perception initiated by Mitch Daniels and “proven” by Tony Bennett’s ISTEP testing program. Mitch needed something to support his claim, and Tony provided it by initiating a state testing program that was rigged from the get go to set the foundation for charters by proving how low-achieving public schools really are. The high stakes tests became the Holy Grail of the public school curriculum and took up most of the school year to prepare students for the week or more of testing. Teaching to the test became a good thing under Daniels and Bennett, and because it was rigged to show the failure of the public school system, it led to the “grading” of schools and the identifying of “failying schools,” most of which were never failing in the first place. This whole debacle was thrust upon Hoosiers by the devious Daniels and Bennett to create the charter system which is more in keeping with Republican ideals–money in the pockets of their supporters. Who gets the top percentage of charter school funding? Not the schools nor the students, and now with a shameless power grab, Good Ole Boy Holcomb has signed legislation to make the State Superintendent’s position appointed (by him), as is the faux State Board of Education Committee that does not contain any teachers. Citizens can in the future expect more of the same blasting of how bad public schools are and the cropping up of more charters whose funding is taken from public school funding and who are not held to the same standards. The charter system can’t fail thanks to Daniels and Bennett, but Hoosier citizens are being failed by Holcomb and his band of make-believe education administration!

  11. I can’t speak to this issue state-wide. I can speak to the issue on the near-east-side of Indianapolis. Non-profit charter schools have been a very good thing.

    That said, it’s important not to lump private, for-profit charter, and non-for-profit charter schools all into the same basket.

    I am not a proponent of vouchers or for-profit charters, but I have seen the good that has come from public charter schools. I was in a neighborhood meeting with Dr. Eugene White when he responded to the pressure from competition from school choice in our neighborhood. I’ve seen the growth of the IPS Magnet and Options Program – including Montessori schools, Center for Inquiry, etc. that wouldn’t have happened as quickly – if at all – if it were not for competition from charter schools.

    There’s nothing magic about the “charter” part… there are good and bad charter schools. There is something very good about a parent deciding where their child goes to school and having a variety of learning methods and academic focus from which to choose.
    As Elizabeth Warren noted in “The Two Income Trap”, the cost of housing has risen dramatically, and that rise is driven because of the traditional link between neighborhoods and educational opportunities. The families with the resources to do so move to affluent suburbs because of the schools.

    Prior to charter schools, a young couple would move into the neighborhood, fix up a house… and then move out when their children became school age. Charter schools (and the IPS Academic Choice program) gave them the option to stay in the neighborhood and have some great educational opportunities. There is no doubt in my mind that much of the revitalization of Irvington can be linked back to ICS (as well as Our Lady of Lourdes). Charter schools break the link between zip code and education, and that’s a very good thing.

    In fact, I believe that the proximity to IUPUI potentially gives urban schools the ability collaborate and innovate. I also believe that the many good charter schools in urban neighborhoods potentially even give urban neighborhoods a strategic competitive advantage. Of course, that would require us to actually embrace the new opportunities and stop the knee-jerk reaction to charter schools.

  12. Steve Hilbert there is a name from the past, once he was the darling and poster boy for success. There always seemed to be some glowing article in our local media about him.

    Shelia, “My guess is that he drank deeply from the well of GOP dogma, and believes–with an almost religious fervor, evidence be damned– that the private sector is always superior to the public sector.”

    I would propose an alternate take that the GOP Dogma is not so much an ideology of the private sector being superior in outcomes. The Private Sector Schools is part of a money laundering scheme to divert public money (taxes) into the pockets of the chosen few.

    The simple fact would seem to be these Charter and/or Voucher Schools could not “make it” following the Capitalist Dogma, so they had to have public money (taxes) to survive.

    The “Ideology” if you can call it that is not so much about lofty philosophical ideals, but how to “profit” off of privatization. Pastor Pence forever will be a saint to the bible thumper’s as public money (taxes) can now be used to prop up the religious “schools”.

  13. You make a very important point. We need to distinguish between vouchers and charters. Lumping them all together muddies the waters and simply confuses the conversation.

  14. MMM,

    While I appreciate your upbeat comments, the schools ARE failing to educate our children in preparedness for the rest of the 21st century. I didn’t start teaching in public schools until I was 53. What I saw stunned me. The curriculum in science has been de-tuned to almost comic book level. Everyone was so worried about hurting a child’s feelings about failure that the kids finally realized that being motivated to learn was a waste of energy; they could pass without trying.

    At the bottom of all this is the pathetic views of the citizens who don’t have children in schools. Their attitude is “Why should I care about investing in schools and paying teachers?” This self-absorbed, ME FIRST attitude is what cause ANY institution to fail. We MUST pay our teachers a professional salary. Otherwise, the revolving door of teacher turnover will continue to dilute the relationships between students and teachers and between caring parents and teachers.

    Creatures like Betsy DeVos are the final outcome of the abortive Bush initiative, “No Child Left Behind”. This punishment only program created DISINCENTIVES and didn’t improve education quality a lick. Bottom line? Let teachers teach and spend your tax money on the quality of the teacher, the safety of the schools and intelligent administration. Charter schools, vouchers and the like, are merely the right’s excuse to say, “We don’t want to pay.”

  15. I’m not sure if the “for-profit” and “not-for-profit” distinction between charter schools is necessarily valuable. As I understand it, a legally not-for-profit charter school could be run by a very much for profit management company. The finances, not being subject to public records requests, can be very opaque.

    (I welcome correction if this is incorrect.)

  16. Doug,

    My understanding is that there have been for-profit schools attempted (Michigan, I believe) that were terrible. The emphasis was on profit rather than education.

    On the other hand I have seen charter schools that seem to be working well – look at ICS, Herron, Paramount, Purdue Polytech, etc.

    Again IPS has some great options now also – CFI, Montessori schools, language immersion programs, etc. They were largely forced into competing with charters – and that’s been a good thing.

    Look, I feel like the folks standing on the sidelines throwing stones at education reform aren’t seeing that what we had wasn’t working. And it sure the hell wasn’t working for poor families – children from poor families were going to poor schools. Socio-economic segregation in schools has been much more rigid than even racial segregation.

    Having charter schools and school choice does break the link between zip code and educational opportunities — it’s good for the students and their families and it’s good for the neighborhoods.

  17. I also disagree with the quoted author’s take on school funding: The way it was before, local property taxes funded local schools. The result was a socio-economic apartheid – where poor neighborhoods had terrible schools and wealthy areas had crazy rich schools. That funding mechanism was being found to be unconstitutional – and the writing was on the wall.

    Communities can, and do, pass referendums on school funding which tends to make both taxpayers and parents feel like they have some say in the process.

    I do think we are placing way too much responsibility on schools for socializing our children. The parents are the child’s first teacher – and schools can’t really compensate for the much of the dysfunction happening at home.

  18. Still looking at a “neutral” law with an unconstitutional impact argument. Unfortunately, some of the air goes out with Zelman v. Simmons-Harris 536 US 639 (2002) I do see some ways around it, but iffy.

  19. Timothy, just to be clear – my arguments aren’t in favor of vouchers.

    I believe that vouchers are just a back-door for public funding of religious schools. Parents who want to send their children to religious schools may do that on their own dime – not mine.

  20. I have to agree with Kurt that vouchers are the final relief of parents who for decades have wanted to send their children to religious schools and didn’t want to pay — or to pay for public schools

    Two point about public schools (my opinion) –
    (1) their greatest purpose would to be create citizens and to create an American identity – not Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Afro-centric – rather a mixing of people who might not ordinarily mix (E Pluribus Unum) and their learning about what it means to be a good citizen (civics classes anyone?)
    (2) the public pays for the schools for the PUBLIC GOOD (see point 1), not to reimburse parents for educating their children – this “the voucher is paid to the parents, therefore no church/state problem” is balderdash

    My other beef with charter schools – it screws the kids to don’t attend –
    Sorry, personal – ages ago Detroit set up a “magnet” high school – they offered places to students who had tested well – advanced classes were offered. I went to my local school ignoring offers in the 9th and 10th grades – not only were the resources moved to that one school, some of the teachers felt that those left behind were unworthy of educating (some of this was racial) – my “senior math” teacher (department chair) stopped teaching for the last month of the year – “most of us couldn’t handle it”

    If you set up a “charter” school to help improve education, you can almost guarantee that everyone who doesn’t attend will have vastly inferior education.

  21. I just want to comment on what I know. I attended Catholic grade & High School, it was a family tradition. My parents paid their property taxes,and also paid tuition so we could attend parochial school that had a state approved curriculum. In other words they paid twice. It was their choice. It was bare bones disciplined education. no gyms or pools we paid for our own books uniforms & transportation. Wondering what is done with the tax money that these families don’t use? On the other hand vouchers are only allowed to low income families, not to all families with students.

  22. Len Farber,

    I may be misunderstanding your point, but charter schools in Indiana may not use an a merit based filter to give preference to one student over another. Slots are assigned on a lottery basis with preference going to existing students and also siblings of students. They may not “skim the cream off the top” and leave the rest.

    There is an argument that goes something like: The students with involved parents who would enroll them in a charter school are “advantaged” by the mere fact that they have involved parents and thus the charter schools do “skim”.

    The thing is that without charter schools, that same self-selection is happening anyway – it just involves a moving van instead. We’ve been there, done that — and it devastated neighborhoods while also driving up the cost of housing. The bottom line is that you can’t force families to keep their child in a mediocre school out of some distorted sense of “fairness”. Not only is that terribly unfair to the student – it doesn’t work. The parents will make great sacrifices to move or to send their child to a private school.

    Charter schools give families an equal shot regardless of their income, zip code, or the student’s academic predisposition (a child may attend any charter school). They also give parents a choice in the method of learning as well as the focus of the curriculum.

  23. Kathy – I have no children and have paid taxes to educate young people, hopefully to become good citizens and somewhat knowledgeable voters (a wish). When asked, I have voted to increase my taxes for the sake of the schools. I expect my tax dollars to be used to give my neighbors’ children a better education.

    Kurt – I think you do understand me and I agree that in the absence of charter schools, those parents that can use the moving van. I grew up with “white flight” in Detroit and the high school I graduated from went from one of the best in the state to being demolished (this is over decades). My point is that Magnets, Charters, or whatever that helps the few fails the masses. If we are serious about education (granted, I am one of those who believes in it completely and continually), then we need to address all of the schools and make it so that every parent can be happy moving to any neighborhood knowing that their children will be given a fine education.

    Yes, this is idealistic, but I prefer to try to help everyone (I also feel that leaving anyone without healthcare is wrong-this may actually happen before we fix education). We would need to rethink the entire funding structure, elevate the teaching profession to the level we have elevated physicians, and institute some evidence-based reforms in how we teach (class size, teaching style, etc.).

    Knowing about the DeVos family (I’m from Michigan and still have family there) and reading the studies, the helpful charter seems to be the exception. My real fear is that they are considered the cure – nothing else need change – we have fixed the problem. I’d like to see a study of the teachers at charters, their qualifications, pay, and turnover. I suspect that charters don’t elevate the profession, but like all businesses, treat teachers as “human assets”.

  24. Vouchers are not limited to poor families. Families of 4 with incomes of $95,000 qualify. Voucher schools give enrollment preference to students of their own religious and church membership. Legislature refused to limit enrollment in either voucher or charter schools to students who were failing or who were in failing public schools. The rhetoric about saving those students was just rhetoric.

    In fact, both voucher and charter schools discriminate based on test scores, special ed. needs, and ability to speak English. Taxpayers paying the freight do NOT have an equal opportunity to enroll their children at voucher or charter schools.

    As for the ‘failing’ urban schools, it was mostly a myth. I was continually distressed by comparisons of schools with high poverty schools to those with a much higher proportion of college-educated, high income families. For years, IPS schools showed more student growth than high priced suburbs, but legislators intent on enacting vouchers and charters instead chose to measure all schools by a cut score on I-STEP. I like high scores too, but if urban school teachers are adding 12-15 months of achievement growth in 9 months time, that deserves immense credit too – especially when so many of their students start out 2 years behind, have a higher proportion of special needs, come from poor circumstances, and/or can’t speak English.

    Necessity is the mother of invention. The enormous challenges of inner city classrooms REQUIRE inventive teachers and programs. Too many charter and voucher schools just avoid the challenges by denying admissions or by ‘counseling-out’ the students they find too challenging to serve by telling parents “we don’t have a program to serve your child’s needs”.

    The essence of truly PUBLIC education is to accept all students, find a way to serve them, and help them learn to accept and deal with students different from themselves. Testing students more often won’t make them smarter, but neuroscience and lab schools can help teachers learn how to educate the students who have fetal alcohol syndrome, who were born to drug addicted mothers, who have developmental delays and lack emotional controls, and more. Instead of investing in research and teaching techiques to resolve these problems, we’re cutting public schools to finance more testing, more charter schools and more school vouchers.

    Indiana has gone another direction. Instead of innovating, charter and voucher schools are putting children into educational silos of those like themselves. That’s not only a disservice to our children but a danger to the future of a pluralistic society.

  25. Nancy,

    When charter schools must use a lottery system how do they discriminate based on test scores?

    I understand about “counseling out”, but if I’m a parent and my child isn’t doing well at a school, my goal is to match my child to the right learning environment — rather than forcing a particular school to adapt to my student. If my child isn’t doing well in a “project based” learning environment, for example, then perhaps I shouldn’t have him in a project based school. If they are interested in performing arts – then perhaps the tech school isn’t a good match. That said, I don’t think they can deny admission to a student.

    The special needs issue is something that I’ve heard before about charters – and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I’d prefer that a school be up-front and tell me they don’t have the resources that my child needs. I don’t know that it’s reasonable that every school be able to accommodate every special need and do a good job. On the other hand, children do come with various abilities and schools should be expected to have some level of flexibility to meet kids where they are.

    I think the “silo” thing is nonsense.

    Again – most parents want to get their child into a program that works with their child’s learning style and in subject matter that excites, motivates and challenges them. They want their child engaged in school. THAT should be the focus – not some notion about a pluralistic society. If you can’t provide a great education- then those parents will move. We’ve already been there – done that… and the result is that schools are more segregated by race and socio-economic class than ever–short of actual segregation. The result has been disastrous for neighborhoods AND for active, engaged families who don’t have the resources to move to a different neighborhood.

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