Charters Aren’t Vouchers

The media recently reported the results of a recent study of schools in Indiana and other states, and found that children attending public charter schools had better learning outcomes than those in traditional public schools or voucher schools.

When I saw the headlines, I cringed–not because of the study’s findings, which seem credible, but because I’d be willing to bet that nine out of ten people reading those reports don’t understand the difference between charter schools and voucher schools–and it’s a critical difference.

Charter schools are independently run public schools that are granted greater flexibility in their operations than traditional public schools. (Theoretically, at least, that flexibility is in exchange for greater accountability for performance.) In the Indianapolis Public School system, leaders at these schools have independent control of policies and academics while still being part of the public school district. 

Because they are public schools, charters are not allowed to charge tuition. They are not allowed to teach or favor any religion. And importantly, since charter schools are public schools, they are constrained by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, gender, socioeconomic status, previous academic scores, or special education status.

Vouchers–as I have explained repeatedly on this site–are very different. Voucher programs send public money–tax dollars– to private schools to offset the tuition charged by those schools. A vast majority of the private schools that accept vouchers are religious, and a vast majority of students employing those vouchers use them to attend religious schools. Furthermore, virtually all of those voucher schools discriminate on some basis–either limiting enrollment to members of a particular faith, excluding students with special needs, or–in several high-profile situations–excluding gay children, or children with gay parents. 

There are problems with charter schools, particularly with those that have contracted with for-profit entities to manage them, but those problems differ substantially from the issues presented by voucher programs. Vouchers weren’t developed in an effort to improve education; they were meant to be “work-arounds.” The First Amendment, along with many state constitutions, prohibits the use of public funds to support religion or religious institutions. Voucher proponents argued that the millions of tax dollars going into the coffers of religious schools are “really” going to the parents, and that the parents are individual citizens who should be free to spend those dollars to send their children to the school of their choice. (And I have a bridge to sell you…)

Courts bought that argument.

The study found that students who attended charters  in Indianapolis had somewhat stronger educational outcomes than those in either traditional public schools, or in IPS “innovation” schools, which are a different type of charter. (Numerous studies have found that children attending voucher schools do no better–and often do more poorly–than similar children attending traditional public schools.)

Indianapolis students in poverty who attend charter schools showed stronger academic growth in math and similar growth in reading compared to the state average, according to the study. 

CREDO’s own metric for comparison also found that students at Indianapolis charter schools gained more days of learning in math and reading during a typical academic year than similar students at traditional IPS district schools and innovation charter schools within the district. Other comparisons in the study include:

Black and Hispanic students at charter schools had stronger academic growth in math and reading compared to Black and Hispanic peers at district schools. No significant difference in learning gains were found between the same student groups in innovation charter schools compared to district schools.

Students in poverty at charter schools had more learning gains in math and reading compared to their peers at district schools. No significant difference in learning gains were found between the same student group in innovation charter schools compared to district schools.

No matter what type of school English Language Learners in Indianapolis attend from the study, they show similar learning gains in reading and math.

The theory behind charter schools was that their greater flexibility would allow them to experiment with curricula and other aspects of the educational environment, and that successful experimentation could then be “imported” into the traditional public schools. According to the linked article, that is precisely the approach being taken by the IPS Superintendent.

I do welcome the study–and for that matter, all evidence of what works and what doesn’t– but I’d be a lot more enthusiastic if i wasn’t convinced that it will be intentionally mischaracterized to support voucher proponents’ efforts to defame and de-fund our public schools….


  1. Charter schools don’t seem to be a prominent item in New York State politics, but what I do notice is financially struggling Catholic schools here. That, combined with sexual abuse lawsuits, has hit the local Bishop’s territory hard.

  2. I have been a proponent of charter schools and IPS magnet/innovation schools. One of the key elements is the ability for parents to select the school that fits the child.

    I do believe that charter schools have inserted an element of competition into public schools – which possibly explains why there isn’t a larger gap in achievement between them and traditional public schools.

    I acknowledge that charter schools often don’t do a good job of special needs education. They will say they simply don’t have the resources to do that. Although they are required by law to provide that, I think it’s not uncommon for them to explain to the parents that their child would be better served elsewhere.

    Voucher schools are a whole different animal. I’ll admit to feeling somewhat conflicted: although I don’t want my tax dollars being used for religious/political indoctrination of children-particularly when it directly conflicts with facts and science, I also see the excellent education that is some of my peers received in Urban Catholic schools. I also see that these vouchers are being used to fund schools that are entirely hostile to science and facts.

    Although the educational outcome is the most important thing, I also see charter schools as a union busting device. I strongly believe that educators should receive a fair wage commiserate to their education and training and charter schools and vouchers shouldn’t be used as a device to race to the bottom of compensation and standards.

  3. “intentionally mischaracterized” In blunt language, we are going to hear a bunch more lies from the wrong wing.

  4. Comments which begin with ‘I think’ worry me. Is it a fact, or a perception. It’s too easy an argument to think such and such is the case. Recall the TV detective, “just the facts, ma’am.”

  5. Thank you very much for the clarification. I was aware of the headline and thought: “Oh no! They’re going to use this to attack public schools.” Such survey’s should always include the pertinent results from the other kind of school, “voucher”, for context and clarity. I will not hold my breath.

  6. One thing to remember is that students in any school other than their assigned public schools have someone at home who is knowledgeable and caring enough to search out options and navigate enrollment. That is more than some students have.

  7. Vouchers, smouchers. Imagine an education environment where teachers salaries were competitive with engineers or other college-educated professionals. As a former engineer, it was a disgrace to experience such a pay cut between being a principle engineer and a science educator in a public school. Fortunately, I could afford it as my spouse was an attorney.

    That said, ask how many college-educated professionals would rather teach children to be great citizens instead of grinding their lives into dust at the hands of incompetent management. Higher, professional salaries for teaching our children should be the national priority instead of nibbling around the edges with charter-this or charter-that. Once we have a well-paid, highly-skilled faculty, special programs, etc., could be implemented at leisure.

    But we won’t do that, will we? It’s part of our American culture to underpay teachers because, in the past, those teachers were women, and… well, they don’t need the money, right?

    Please read my book, “Saving the Seed Corn…” It covers the history and reality of public education.

  8. Thank you, Sheila. I’m one of the nine out of ten. (I’d be willing to bet there are more.).

    That report was at odds with what I had heard before, and now I understand why. You have just helped me withstand the lies we know are coming.

  9. CREDO’s trustworthiness is always questionable, and so is the data.

    Unless the law has changed, charter schools are permitted to discriminate based on test scores and ability to speak English. So charters may not discriminate on national origin alone but have historically denied enrollment, or charters enroll and then fail to serve students who cannot speak our language.

    Charters have long discriminated against special ed. students they didn’t wish to enroll. If they enroll them at all, they enroll higher performing special ed. students but not the more severe cases. If special ed. students do gain initial enrollment, charters keep them until the September student count date on which school funding is based. Then parents of low performing students are called in to be told that the school doesn’t have the program or specialized staff to serve this student’s needs, and the parents may want to look to public schools to enroll their child. Then the charter school still keeps funds for that child the rest of the semester while removing students who lower their school’s test score averages.

    So comparing test scores of traditional public schools which accept and serve all students to the scores of charters which can and do discriminate is a comparison of apples to cherry-picking unless one digs deeper into enrollment patterns.

  10. Any school that teaches religion, especially while ignoring established science, ought not receive taxpayers’ funding.

  11. As Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels brought about some of the most pro-corporate, anti-employee, union busting and education damaging laws we have. The Right to Work law and school vouchers were both created to bust unions, but they have caused harm and risk to employees in all types of businesses.

    Then Mitch Daniels’ protege, pastor pence, opened the flood gates for school vouchers to cause all types of harm to public school systems and their financial stress continues to increase. Once public school funds were diverted to catholic schools that free money has enabled them to use it for new church steeples, church building repairs, building additions and who knows what else.

    Yep, I’m angry that our public schools are financially struggling and must resort to voter referendums to raise money for necessary expenses that would have otherwise been covered by our property taxes while we are being forced to financially support religious indoctrination of young minds.

  12. Mitch is absolutely right. I went to Catholic schools for 12 years. Fortunately, my grade school charged no tuition to parishioners, because the priest who was responsible for building the Church had only agreed to take on the job if he had that in his contract (could that have been the reason the church and school were closed well before their time). But the whole time in the school the teachers said they thought they should get taxpayer dollars, because they taught a lot more than religion. I was not impressed by that notion. Why? Because too many of the Sisters were really not particularly qualified and they were the most apt to bring religion into nearly everything. We did have a more disciplined culture and many of my fellow students have been successful in life thanks largely to that discipline.

    I have a young friend in my neighborhood who teaches in the local public school system. She’s been there about 15 years. After 15 years her salary is less, by an order of magnitude, than what I get from my retirement accounts. That’s a disgrace, especially when you take into account the fact that teachers have to buy most of their own supplies. If you need a master’s degree in any field to be qualified for promotion, the job should pay accordingly. Americans need to get over their disdain for taxation and understand that you get what you pay for.

  13. Catholic families who sent their children to Catholic state accredited schools paid twice for their choice and usually for a houseful of kids. Most families struggled financially. Those kids are Americans too. To blame them for “taking away” from the public school system needs to be fixed. No one wants to do that, and they didn’t have a choice.
    I can remember being packed in a classroom of 60 students and the hindrances of that. The poor nuns who taught were dedicated.
    Today my grandson is in a charter school that teaches in Spanish and English, he’s the age that’s soaking up the language easily.
    Government needs to fix the problem of all American children getting a research based solid education.

  14. Why don’t I want my children to attend the school where they live and where I pay taxes? Is it because I’ve found a far superior school close by, or is it due to racism or propaganda flooding the public airways?

    Defunding public schools with vouchers and charters hurts teachers’ unions, which generally support the Democratic Party.

    Also, if I act as a lawmaker that causes disarray in the public schools, I can support the propaganda saying the government is dysfunctional.

    The “superior school” research is nonsense. Let’s cut to the chase about the real reasons for school choice.

  15. The key word in the educational lexicon for today’s confab is “public,” and unless education (however dressed up by politicians and those at the tax trough) is public I don’t think it should be financed by taxpayer money. I also think politicians should stay out of curricular design and leave that to the experts in the field.

    My now deceased wife earned a doctorate in elementary education from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Her thesis was that we could get a leg up on both reading comprehension AND content by teaching them simultaneously rather than teaching them as different disciplines. She taught the traditional method in one class and her combined method in another for free for a year in the sixth grade of a local school in order to gain the evidence for her statistical treatment comparing their respective outcomes.

    As an A+ student at the doctoral level in Tests and Measurements (which I would have flunked) she wrote up her findings (which were inconclusive), earned an OK from her overseeing doctoral committee, and became Doctor Stinson. She finished her teaching career as a university professor for 17 years teaching both undergraduate and graduate students while representing her department in accreditation matters.

    I was privileged to have been married to her for over 45 years, and though hearsay, I can report to you that she shared the views I expressed in the first paragraph of this response.

  16. Todd the teacher’s unions (AFT and ISTA) are not hurt by vouchers, it is the students and the school corporation. I would be glad to give you personal experience as to how many of those teacers vote for Democrats, so please do perpetuate unproved assumptions.

    As for Charter schools, it is just a way to promote racism and homophobia. Charters can discriminiate with admittance requirements that keep “those other” types of students from getting into their program. They will not take just anyone that applies to get into their program, and they are quick to remove anyone that “isn’t a good fit.” A phrase that is used often when the student is sent back to the public school becuase they required more effort to educate thant he Charter school was willing to take on. Charters are much more concerned about meeting their financial goal than educating the student.

    All data comparing other school types to public schools is irrelevant until the Charter and Voucher schools have the same accountablitly and enrollment requirements as the Public School. Many in Indy just love their charters so they aren’t subjected to the regular public school in IPS. I would enroll my child or grandchildren in IPS 105 (where I taught) anyday over a charter or voucher school.

  17. All public schools should be “charter” schools, that is focused on student needs rather than rote learning and standardized testing. The MBA approach to education must end.

    Vouchers are clearly unconstitutional, period. Not that we will have this Swiss cheese constitution much longer, but if by chance we keep it, ending vouchers should be priority number one.

  18. Rose stated –
    “Catholic families who sent their children to Catholic state accredited schools paid twice for their choice and usually for a houseful of kids.”

    That is just plain wrong! Parents chose to send their children to a religious/nonpublic school. No one forced them to send their children to a school that wasn’t supported by tax dollars in the past. The disgraceful school vouchers that rob public school system funding and force the rest of us to financially subsidize religious indoctrination is nothing short of legalized theft of tax dollars.

    If we all had Rose’s opinion then we should all be upset about having to continue paying property taxes that support other families’ children’s education long after ours have graduated. The idea of public schools is to provide all children in our country a fair chance to not only be educated, but to receive basically the same education no matter where they live. Educating future generations benefits all of us – religious indoctrination does not.

  19. The outright misinformation shared in these comments by people who should know better is astounding. Former leaders of ISTA have a responsibility to not spread falsehoods. Charters are fair game for criticism, but it should be rooted in facts. Charters in Indiana cannot discriminate for any reason, including test scores, special education status, or any identity marker. Period.

  20. Nancy I find your opinion coming from an authoritarian viewpoint. Authoritarians don’t like questions or discussion about the reality that happens in this country. Those children are citizens too, and their families pay taxes. Then they grow up and pay their taxes on and on.
    You don’t want to pay for religious indoctrination and neither do I, but saying what I gleaned from my life is wrong is absurd.

  21. Rose – my opinion is not coming from an authoritarian viewpoint. Instead, it is coming from a taxpayer who recognizes that when parents chose/choose to send their children to a ‘private catholic’ school, instead of a tax funded public school, it is/was a personal religious choice made with the knowledge that choosing a ‘private religious’ school would not and should not be funded by tax dollars. How can it be so difficult for you to understand that? They made the choice to forego the education funded by their tax dollars- that is, if they actually paid property taxes.

    Rose, you are taking the authoritarian viewpoint that other taxpayers should not question being forced to financially subsidize the religious education of school children. Yes, those children are citizens to, but that doesn’t mean I should be forced to financially contribute to the religious indoctrination that their parents CHOSE/CHOOSE.

    You seem to be stuck on pointing out that those kids that attend catholic schools are Americans too, as if that makes it okay for catholic (and other) churches to steal money from a tax on all property owners that was specifically created by the Indiana Constitution of 1816 to fund Free Public School Education for all children. You mentioned that those catholic families had a houseful of kids. Has it ever occurred to you that those houses full of kids never came anywhere near paying enough in property taxes to cover the school expenses for all of their children – even if they had attended public schools? So, to look at it another way, the property owning families with two children have been taxed to support the catholic families with many children who attend public schools.

    As a former farmer I can assure you that my farm ground has always been taxed to pay for the education of many, many more children than my own, but that is part of the price of paying for a free public education for all children. The fact that a portion of my property tax dollars – that should still be going to my local public school system – are stolen through the state’s school voucher system and transferred to catholic and other private schools far away from where I live is nothing short of theft.

  22. I agree that this information will be misused.

    I also agree with Nancy C. “Involved” parents send the children to Charter Schools. There is active selection for a parameter that does matter. Also, those “left behind” in traditional public schools may be treated like lesser individuals. I have previously mentioned my experience in not opting to attend the “magnet” school in Detroit. The head of the math department decided that we were smart enough for advanced topics.

    The real test will be if some of the “innovations” can be transferred to the traditional public schools and proven to be beneficial. That will take time and may or may not actually be studied.

  23. Nancy, I find your questioning stance condescending. Did they pay taxes? Catholic families having a lot of kids was a matter of their Catholic faith. They all worked hard and did the best they could. Have you ever had to go to a school with 60 kids packed into a classroom? The KKK was huge here in Indiana and some parents wanted to protect their children from the KKK’s harsh attitudes toward Catholics. I hear your anger, but think it’s misplaced toward Catholic families and the children. I would hope with vouchers more American rights would be upheld in those classrooms.

  24. I am fine with vouchers, BUT!!! Vouchers should be LIMITED to the amount that you paid in property taxes for the public schools. LIMITED FOR THE family not per each child..TOTAL!! If you paid $1000 of your taxes for the school system, then that is all your total voucher would be for the family and that amount would be split anyway that you wanted amounst the children to go to their respective schools.

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