It appears that the World’s Worst Legislature is succeeding in its goal of destroying–or at least fatally wounding– public education in the Hoosier state. An inconvenient side-effect of that success is the now-clear evidence that initial arguments for the state’s voucher program were always bogus.
Participation in Indiana’s taxpayer-funded private school voucher program jumped to the highest level since its start over a decade ago – even as the number of low-income and families of color using vouchers decreased.
According to a new state report, the Choice Scholarship Program totaled $311.8 million in grants for 53,262 students in the 2022-23 academic year. That’s 9,000 students and $70.4 million more than the previous school year.
But those increases will be dwarfed over the next two years, as nearly all Indiana students will become eligible for vouchers in the coming weeks. Those changes, enacted by new state law, are estimated to qualify 41,800 additional students for the program and cost $1.136 billion in total.
Those of us who have followed the General Assembly’s persistent efforts to privatize education will recall the original, pious justifications for “school choice.” Vouchers, they assured us, were a mechanism that would allow poor minority students to leave those underperforming “urban” (read “ghetto”) schools. The educational voucher program was sold as an effort to “level the playing field” for the underprivileged.
Right–and I have a bridge to sell you…
What also proved to be untrue was the claim that vouches would improve educational outcomes. Years of academic research–previously shared on this blog and elsewhere–have demolished the claim that the “private” (basically, religious) schools benefitting from those vouchers would do a better job of imparting academic skills.
In the face of incontrovertible evidence that vouchers are actually used by middle and upper-middle class families–a significant number of whom had been paying to send their kids to private schools before our legislative overlords kindly eased their financial burden–and similarly overwhelming evidence that educational outcomes were not improving, the justification changed.
Now it’s enabling “parental rights.”
(I will restrain myself from pointing out how hypocritical Republicans are when they talk about “choice” and parental rights….parents who might want to take their kids to Drag Queen story hour, or who want them to learn accurate American history sure don’t get rights or respect for their choices…but I digress.)
As with other policies flying in the face of evidence, the GOP’s fondness for vouchers can best be understood if we follow the money.
In the program’s 12th year, the average student is described as White, elementary school-age, and from a household of around four people with an income of $81,818, according to the Indiana Department of Education. Indiana’s median household income is around $62,000.
The report found the high-income eligibility likely led to the 9.3 percent decrease in the number of participating families with an income of $50,000 or less. Families earning $100,001 to $150,000 saw the largest increase in voucher use at about 8.4 percent.
The increase in participation will likely only continue in the coming years now that the state legislature expanded the income limit threshold to 400% of the free-and-reduced-lunch threshold, enabling a family of four making $220,000 a year to get a voucher, whereas the program currently cuts off families of that size at an income of $166,500.
It’s interesting that the Hoosier lawmakers who are so generous to upper-income constituents when it comes to siphoning students from the public schools suddenly become “fiscally conservative” when it comes to helping poor Hoosiers. Look, for example, at the income limits for pre-school vouchers. Those are limited to families with household income below 127% of the federal poverty limit, or about $32,700 for a family of four — and in order to be eligible, parents must be working, attending school or participating in some sort of job training.
In Indiana, government works best for the well-off. It’s a lot more punitive when dealing with the working poor.
The worst part of this travesty , however, isn’t fiscal. It isn’t even the substandard educational results provided by those private “academies.” It’s the deepening of social polarization, the deliberate encouragement of tribalism.
Public education–as political scientist Benjamin Barber emphasized–is constitutive of a public.In an interview before he died, Barber cited Jefferson:
Jefferson saw a profound connection between the Bill of Rights — the document embodying the rights of citizens — and education as the foundation which made democracy work and made the Bill of Rights work. The founding of the common school, the public school, in America was for Jefferson the foundation for an effective and successful democracy. I think we have lost sight of the connection between the schooling, citizenship and democracy.
In an increasingly fragmented and hostile America, that connection is more important than ever. Indiana’s GOP supermajority doesn’t understand that. Or care.