Tag Archives: tax dollars

Universal “Scholarships”

Both the IBJ and the Capital Chronicle have reported on the legislature’s current effort to totally privatize education in Indiana. If passed, Senate Bill 305 would allow any and all parents to get taxpayer money to enroll their children in a private school or home school them. 

The legislation would dramatically expand Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESAs)–a more neutral term for the vouchers that–for very good reason– are no longer as popular as they once were.

In 2021, Indiana’s General Assembly approved ESA’s for special education students by burying the proposal in the budget, where it escaped much in the way of sustained scrutiny. SB305 would expand the program to all students, via a universal Education Scholarship Account.

The existing ESAs are limited to students who qualify for special education, and whose families meet income limits. (Not that those limits aren’t generous–a family of four can make up to $154,000 annually. That’s three times the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.)

SB 305 would extend the ESA program to all students, regardless of a student’s educational needs or their family’s income level.

So what’s wrong with ESA’s? 
 
As numerous observers point out, there’s a lot wrong. For one thing, the bill lacks any public oversight or measures ensuring accountability. The state would simply give tax dollars to parents who would be trusted to spend it on their children’s education (there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism to ensure that the dollars would actually be used for education) at any school of their choice, or for home schooling and/or educational materials.
 
Apparently, all a parent needs to do to get some $7500 per student is fill out an online application promising to spend “part of the money” for the study of “reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies or science.” No standards. No requirements for art, music, foreign language or–perish the thought–civics. Not even those pesky criminal background checks required of public school teachers and volunteers.

Interestingly, the program would be managed by the state’s treasurer–not the Department of Education. 

Clearly, education isn’t the goal.

Researchers have exhaustively documented the results of current voucher programs, and repeatedly demonstrated that these programs have failed to improve educational outcomes. Over 90% of voucher recipients take them to religious schools that frequently substitute dogma for science and history. My own research confirms that–in Indiana at least– few, if any, include civics instruction. (My personal favorite among the history textbooks most widely used in these religious schools describes slave trade as “sometimes unwilling black immigration.” Ya think?)

As the Capital Chronicle reported,

Indiana has about 87,000 private school students, according to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). About 44,000 of those use the state’s Choice Scholarship program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. But the remaining 43,000 would be eligible for the grant, which would average around $7,500 statewide.

That would add more than $300 million a year to what the state is already sending to private, mostly religious schools.

The voucher program started similarly with a cap of 7,500 students at a cost of $15 million. The cap doubled the next year and now there is no limit and a current annual cost of $240 million.

As I reminded readers a few days ago, Indiana’s current voucher program classifies families that earn up to $145,000 per year as “poor” enough to have the state pay for their kids to attend private schools. Qualification for state-funded childcare and/or pre-kindergarden is a different matter: families bringing home a mere $27,500 are “too rich” to qualify.

None of this makes sense unless the legislature’s actual goal is to encourage an exodus from the state’s public schools, a goal that furthers other longtime efforts: destroying the teacher’s union, and finding a “work-around” of the First Amendment’s prohibition against funneling tax dollars to religious organizations.

SB 305’s proposed expansion would cost a fortune and fail to deliver educational benefits. Worse, those dollars would come from our already under-resourced public schools. That would especially harm rural Hoosiers who live in areas too sparsely populated to support private alternatives.

Since it is no longer possible to defend vouchers on educational grounds, this misbegotten effort is being sold under the current MAGA banner of “parental choice.” 

Whenever I hear these culture warriors utter the word “choice,” I expect a bolt of lightning to strike. They want the “choice” to avoid vaccinations, the “choice” not to have their children learn accurate history, the “choice” to keep “Heather Has Two Mommies” out of the library…

But other people’s choices? (The choice to support sound, secular public education, or terminate a pregnancy, for example?) Not so fast!

If SB 305 passes, it will certainly affect the choices of people who might otherwise be thinking of relocating to Indiana. 
 



 

 

 

 

 

Montana Is Right; Indiana Is Wrong

Montana’s Supreme Court recently struck down that state’s version of a school voucher program, ruling that it was unconstitutional under a provision of the state’s constitution.

As Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported,

The Montana Supreme Court delivered a win for church-state separation and public education last week when it struck downthe state’s private school voucher program.

Americans United, joined by other civil-rights organizations, had urged the court through a friend-of-the-court brief to prevent the voucher scheme – called a tuition tax credit program – from funding private, religious education. Our brief explained that the program violated the “no-aid” provision in Montana’s constitution, which protects residents’ religious freedom by ensuring taxpayer money isn’t used for religious purposes – including religious education.

The Montana Supreme Court agreed with us: “We ultimately conclude the Tax Credit Program aids sectarian schools in violation of Article X, Section 6, and that it is unconstitutional in all of its applications,” wrote the court majority.

“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said AU president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

The Indiana Constitution has a provision very similar to Montana’s. What we don’t have is a Supreme Court willing to uphold it.

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, and according to Chalkbeat, 306 of the 313 schools across Indiana that received vouchers this year are religious. When supporters of public education and civil liberties challenged Indiana’s program, citing our state’s constitutional bar on sending tax dollars to religious institutions of any sort, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to address the reality of the program, ruling that the funds were being sent to parents, not schools, and that it was thus the parents who were “choosing” to use them at religious schools. (Among other intellectually dishonest aspects of that analysis, the court conveniently ignored the fact that 90% of Indiana’s private schools are religious, a fact that rather obviously constrains that parental “choice.”)

There are numerous reasons to oppose school vouchers, and I’ve written about several: research rebuts claims that children attending these schools perform better than similar children in public schools; the program diverts money from already under-resourced public education; there is no requirement that voucher schools teach civics or comply with civil rights laws or refrain from discriminating against LGBTQ students or teachers. (Roncalli, anyone?) There is virtually no accountability.

Accountability has been cited as one of several differences between voucher schools and charter schools. Charters are public schools, they must obey the Constitution, and they can be closed if they fail to perform adequately. (The threat of closing does make them accountable, but use of that mechanism is terribly disruptive, and causes significant angst for parents and children who must find another educational venue.)

Now it appears that Charters, too, have discovered an escape from accountability. According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Charters closed for poor performance or financial improprieties can simply reinvent themselves as–you guessed it!–voucher schools.

The article addressed announcement of the closure of Thurgood Marshall School, a Charter.

If Fort Wayne’s charter-school history is any indication, however, the school might not remain closed. When authorizer Ball State University pulled the charters for Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway, the schools simply converted to private voucher schools. About $3.6 million in state loans made to Imagine were forgiven…

The sponsors turned to Horizon Christian Academy, which took over operation of the two schools but seems to have made no improvements. The Broadway school was absorbed into the Wells Street campus school in 2016. Enrollment grew, but not academic achievement. After consecutive state accountability grades of D’s and F’s, the state finally prohibited Horizon from enrolling new voucher students this year, but current students continue to receive taxpayer-supported tuition for the school.

At the very least, lawmakers should prohibit Charter schools closed for non-performance from continuing to rip off taxpayers by converting to Voucher status.

What lawmakers ought to do, of course, is admit what the Montana Supreme Court recognized: sending tax dollars to religious schools violates both the state and federal constitutions–whether those dollars are “laundered” through parents or not.

Indiana’s voucher program was sold as a way to give poor children a better education. In reality, it serves middle and upper-income families by requiring taxpayers to subsidize their children’s religious education. It should be phased out.

 

 

 

Footing The Bill For Proselytizing

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has reported on Indiana’s school voucher program–the largest such program in the United States–and has followed that report with a wider-ranging, scathing editorial listing additional issues with the program.

The newspaper’s revelations didn’t surprise those of us who have been watching what I can only call “the voucher scam.” Whatever the motives of the people who originally supported these programs–and I know that some of them were sincerely trying to improve educational opportunities for poor children– vouchers have become the weapon of choice for theocrats who have long felt threatened by public education.

As the article notes,

Taxpayers in Indiana are footing the bill for student scholarships to schools that push ultraconservative and sometimes bigoted viewpoints.

More than 30 private schools participating in Indiana’s school voucher program use textbooks from companies that teach homosexuality as immoral, environmentalism as spiritually bankrupt and evolution as an evil idea.

Of the 318 private schools participating in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program – a voucher program that uses public funding to help students afford private schools – 36 use at least one textbook or piece of curriculum created by either Abeka or Bob Jones University Press.

The reporters checked the websites of 131 Christian schools that participate in Indiana’s “Choice” program, looking for details about their curricula. If a school didn’t have a website, or the information on the site was inadequate, they reached out via phone and email. Most failed to respond.

Who are Abeka and Bob Jones University Press? How do their textbooks compare with standard classroom materials?

Abeka, a textbook company, is affiliated with Pensacola Christian College, a far-right religious university in Florida that bans “dancing” and “satanic practices” in its code of conduct. Bob Jones University Press is affiliated with its eponymous university, which outlawed interracial dating until the year 2000.

According to education scholars, the textbooks produced by Abeka and Bob Jones are filled with inaccurate history and distorted science. A  historian is quoted in the article saying that the history texts don’t teach anything “that could accurately be called history;” instead, she said, “They are essentially proselytizing for Protestant Christianity.”

In a middle school American history textbook published by Abeka, titled “America: Land I Love,” Satan is blamed for the spread of the theory of evolution and modern psychology, according to a book procured by HuffPost.

A high school world history textbook from Bob Jones University Press also pushes falsehoods and stereotypes. One chapter asserts that it was Jewish religious leaders who plotted to kill Jesus Christ, a myth that has long been used to fuel anti-Semitic sentiment.

Of the 318 schools that currently participate in Indiana’s voucher program, more than 95 percent are explicitly religious. According to the Journal Gazette’s calculations, at least 4,240 children receiving vouchers funded by tax dollars attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones’ textbooks.

Of course, not all participating schools use these texts, and some 34,000 students have now participated in Indiana’s voucher program, so it is only fair to consider how they are doing overall. After all, voucher programs have now been around long enough to be evaluated.

The news isn’t good.

The research simply doesn’t support the rosy claims made by proponents. In Indiana, studies show that children using vouchers have an average annual loss of 0.10 standard deviations in mathematics when compared to comparable public school students; that same research found no statistically meaningful difference in reading.  Research from other states has yielded even more disappointing results.

These schools may be bringing children to Jesus, but they aren’t improving their educations.

So–let’s sum up what we know: Significant resources are being diverted from Indiana’s struggling public schools in order to send funds to private religious schools that do not improve children’s performance in reading, and significantly worsen their performance in math. An indeterminate number of those schools substitute extremist religious indoctrination for accurate instruction in history and science.

This is the Mike Pence “model” that Betsy DeVos wants to replicate nationwide.

These are your tax dollars at work.

It Depends

Early each semester, I tell my students that–after taking my class–they should find themselves using two terms more frequently than they did before: it depends, and it’s more complicated than that.

For example, in recent posts, I have pointed to significant problems with two proposed public-private projects: a Justice Center and a soccer stadium. In the case of the Justice Center, my qualms aren’t with the project itself, but with the secrecy surrounding it, the important questions that remain unanswered, and the potential for both poor design and unnecessary expense. In the case of the soccer stadium, i’m flat-out opposed to putting scarce tax dollars in a project that’s unlikely to do anything but enrich its politically-connected developer.

But just because some projects raise red flags doesn’t mean taxpayers should never support local business efforts. It simply means we need to be savvy about which ones.

Take the recent proposal from Angie’s List. The company has asked the city to create a TIF to secure approximately 18 million in bonds. In return it has promised to invest $44 million of its own– to retain a thousand jobs on its near-Eastside campus, to relocate another existing 800 employees to that campus, and to grow the workforce there by yet another 1000– all by the end of 2019. In addition to those jobs (paying an average of 50,000), the company will purchase and redevelop an existing building and construct a parking garage.

Obviously, adding 1,800 well-paid workers to the near Eastside of downtown would be very good for the city. But what if Angie’s List defaults–what if it cannot grow its workforce, or even honor the “clawback” penalties for failure to do so?  What will the city have to show for its investment?

Several things, actually:

  • A contaminated property, the Ford Building, that has been redeveloped and returned to the tax rolls.
  • A new parking garage and street level retail on 3 acres of currently undeveloped property added to the property tax base.
  • Physical improvements that should spur redevelopment east of the interstate towards Irvington.
  • Creation of 500 construction jobs that will generate COIT and sales tax revenue.
  • Facilitation of IPS’ relocation of operations from the former Coca-Cola building on Massachusetts Avenue – something both the city and IPS have long desired.

Note that these aspects of the project will benefit taxpayers whether or not Angie’s List can fulfill its employment promises. If it can, the city will obviously see many other benefits.

The point is, every proposed project, every proposed TIF district, every “partnership” must be independently evaluated. Hard questions must be asked, and “what ifs?” must be considered. If rosy projections don’t materialize, will taxpayers still come out ahead? If not (soccer stadium), we shouldn’t proceed. If we don’t have enough information (Justice Center), we shouldn’t proceed until we have that information. If a project has been thoroughly vetted, however, and the downside is still acceptable, it’s a prudent investment.

In other words, it depends.

 

Your Tax Dollars at Work

One hundred and sixteen million dollars. That’s the amount that Education Week reports will be made available this year to Indiana’s voucher schools. Needless to say, that’s also the amount that will be taken away from Indiana’s public schools.

Two new reports detail the exponential growth of the state’s school voucher program: One is the annual report issued by the Indiana Department of Education, the other comes from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, which is based out of Indiana University’s School of Education.

The article notes that Indiana has been steadily expanding its voucher program since it was first created in 2011.

Recent changes include raising the threshold on income eligibility, lifting the participation cap on the program, and opening the program up to students who were already enrolled in private schools. For example, the legislature passed a bill in 2013 making students zoned to schools graded “F” in the state’s accountability system eligible for vouchers even if they had never attended their local public school.

For the current school year, fewer than 50 percent of students in the voucher program had previously attended a public school. In other words, we taxpayers have generously taken over the cost of private schooling for  parents who had previously been footing their own bills. At the same time that our public schools–especially in urban areas–are being starved of resources.

Voucher programs in Indiana and Ohio have some of the least restrictive income-eligibility requirements in the country.

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence in our “buckle of the bible belt” state, but 94% of the schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools.

Honest to Goodness. Indiana.