Tag Archives: vouchers

Another Day, Another Voucher Study…

Okay–I know it’s just one more time beating that horse (an animal quite probably dead by now…), but I can’t resist. Brookings has just issued yet another study confirming the educational downsides of voucher programs.

The study was prompted by the recent expansion of voucher programs and “education savings accounts,” (ESAs) which are functionally the same thing–the use of public money to allow parents to send their children to private schools. That expansion has occurred primarily in states that voted for Trump in 2020, which should be a clue that these programs are based on ideology; their proponents simply ignore that pesky inconvenient thing called evidence.

(The Brookings report has multiple links to the previous academic research on each of the following points; I’m not including them, but if you click through, you will be able to easily access them.)

This study confirms a number of the findings of previous research: for example,  that after expansion of a voucher program or implementation of an ESA, pop-up schools immediately appear, many of which will close rather quickly, and that existing private schools raise their tuition.

The study notes that a decade of research has confirmed that vouchers reduce student academic achievement. Brookings cites studies from Louisiana and Indiana, among others, that found quite substantial declines in student test scores. (Indiana’s pathetic legislature simply ignored the fact that Indiana’s voucher program had demonstrably failed to perform as promised. In its recent session, the legislature made the program available to virtually  all of Indiana’s schoolchildren, and is now promoting it heavily.)

Perhaps because the reality fails to match the rhetoric, exit rates from the private schools accepting vouchers are high; in Indiana, as in several other states, some 20% of students who use a voucher to enroll in a private school depart every year–and interestingly, their return to public schooling improves their academic performance.

The research also notes the high percentage of private schools that are religious, but fails to make a point that I consider pivotal: when students leave public educational institutions where–despite residential segregation–they are more likely to interact with children whose races, cultures and religions differ from their own than in the more racially and religiously segregated voucher schools, their “tribal” identities are strengthened. That lack of diversity not only hampers their later interactions in a diverse society, it fosters precisely the sorts of polarization that bedevil contemporary society.

A problem that was highlighted in the research was the lack of accountability of these private schools, both educational and fiscal. In Arizona, “educational” costs that have been reimbursed under their program have been, shall we say, questionable, and  in North Carolina, schools have claimed payment for more vouchers than students actually used. (While this study didn’t mention the problem, others have noted that a lack of public reporting requirements  makes it very difficult for parents to determine how well a given private school is really performing. Too often, they end up making a choice based upon surface impressions–or more frequently, PR and marketing.)

As the study concludes, recent expansions of these programs will test prior findings–one of which, interestingly, is that “the larger the program, the worse the results.”

What is so discouraging about the persistent Red state expansions of these voucher programs is that these legislatures utterly ignore credible research, and–rather than applying those millions of tax dollars to the improvement of public education–throw millions of dollars into programs that demonstrably do not improve academic outcomes.

When voucher programs were first introduced, they were promoted as a way to allow poor children to leave failing urban schools. Recent program expansions have given the lie to that original argument; virtually every child in Indiana (and elsewhere) now qualifies to use public money to attend private schools–very much including children who had never attended a public school, and whose parents had previously been paying private school tuition.

Perhaps some of the proponents of vouchers remain unaware of the mountains of evidence and truly believe the hype. But given the other research I’ve cited about the segregating effects of educational “choice,” you’ll forgive me if I am cynical.



The Right’s Educational Agenda

As regular readers of this blog know, Morton Marcus and I recently co-authored and published a small book on the women’s movement. (If you haven’t purchased it, I really wish you would…) We discovered that–despite our very different preoccupations–we work together well, and we’ve been considering another project, this time, an examination of educational privatization–aka the voucher movement.

But researching the consequences that most concern us ranges from tricky to impossible. There’s plenty of research demonstrating that privatization has failed to deliver what proponents promised: better test scores. Researchers can access that sort of data; many have, and the results are pretty straightforward–which is why voucher cheerleaders now talk about parental choice rather than improved educational outcomes.

We have another concern: that vouchers facilitate and encourage the polarization of the polity, undermining civic cohesion at a time when increasing population diversity makes civic unity both more difficult and more important.

The research problem is what academics call “self-selection.” Even if we were able to test the thesis that graduates of private, mostly religious voucher schools emerge less civically knowledgable or more religiously biased or more prone to misogyny, etc., there would be no way to attribute those outcomes to the schools; the likelihood is that parents choosing such schools considered those outcomes to be a feature, not a bug.

I ran into a similar roadblock several years ago; I’d hoped to research the effects of the built environment on social capital. Did people living in gated communities have measurably different connections to, or interactions with, other people? Again, the “chicken and egg” issue confounded me: it was likely that most people who chose to live in those gated communities already had similar levels of social capital.

We may or may not develop a data-driven analysis of the anti-democratic results of school privatization. We both recognize that our public schools are far from perfect–years of neighborhood segregation, among other things, created huge differences between schools. Some of the charter schools that were initially intended to be more innovative public schools have become indistinguishable from private academies. And not all parents who place children in a private or charter school are doing so in order to indoctrinate their offspring (or protect them from Black or Brown classmates).

That said, many of these schools are teaching a very Whitewashed American history.

One recent report traces the sharp, Rightward turn of a new breed of Charter schools.

NPE identified hundreds of charter schools, predominantly in red states, that use the classical brand or other conservative dog whistles to attract white Christian families to enroll in the school. From featured religious music videos to statements that claim they offer a faith-friendly environment, these charter schools are opening at an accelerated rate, with at least 66 additional schools in the pipeline to open by 2024. While some of these schools, such as the Roger Bacon Academies, are long-standing, nearly half of the schools we identified opened after the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Hillsdale College is a small, conservative Christian college that has long been noted for far-Right indoctrination, and it is one of the most influential organizations pushing these charters.

The small conservative Christian college in Michigan has become a major player in Ron DeSantis’s Florida; as the report says, “Tug any thread of Florida’s present education policy, and you will find this small Michigan college at the other end.”

Hillsdale’s president Larry Arnn was tagged by Donald Trump to head his short-lived 1776 Commission, charged with creating nationalistic history curriculum (a version of which is now offered by Hillsdale). He has made the occasional misstep, as when Hillsdale’s charter move into Tennessee was stalled after Arnn was caught saying that “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Hillsdale works through its Barney Charter School initiative as well as providing its classical curriculum to member charters at no cost. In some cases, as with the Optima chain in Florida, the charter may be operated by a for-profit charter management firm (in the case of Optima, both the charter chains and the charter management organization are owned by the same person). The report found that among this new wave of conservative charter schools, the percentage of those operated by for-profit charter management companies is twice that in the charter sector as a whole.

Not every charter that advertises a classical curriculum is Rightwing; here in Indianapolis, Herron High School is an admirable example–and proudly public. But the morphing of charters into Rightwing indoctrination academies continues to gather steam.

I’m convinced that this movement endangers American democracy–but convincing data proving my hypothesis isn’t likely to emerge until Americans are living with the very undemocratic results.


Calling Out The Lie

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 Indiana,

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.

As the Indianapolis Star reported,

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.




When I read the June 2d issue of the Indiana Business Journal, I fumed.

An editorial by current Lt. Governor and  2024 gubernatorial candidate Suzanne Crouch was titled “Why I support Universal School Choice for Hoosier Families.” Of course, “school choice” sounds way nicer than “Why I support destroying Indiana’s public schools,” or “Why I support school vouchers despite overwhelming evidence that they don’t deliver educational benefits, are socially divisive, and are a huge taxpayer subsidy to religious institutions.”

If you doubt the accuracy of that last statement, the IBJ helpfully included lists of Indiana’s largest private primary and secondary schools. Only four of the 25 primary schools listed were not religious–Park Tudor, Orchard, Sycamore and the International School.  Park Tudor–a very expensive private school ($25,930 a year!)– doesn’t accept vouchers. Sycamore limits enrollment to gifted and talented children, and the International School also appeals to a specialized constituency.

All of the other schools on a list headed by the Oaks Academy and Heritage Christian School are either Catholic, or conservative or fundamentalist Christian.

When it comes to the 19 secondary schools, only three–Park Tudor, University High School and the International School–are secular.

I have posted numerous times about the myriad ways in which advocates of “privatization” and “choice” in education have contributed to the hollowing out of America’s civic structure. (If you type “vouchers” into the search bar at the top right of this blog,  you”ll get more data than you probably want to absorb…)

I’ve linked to studies showing that fundamentalist Christian schools are teaching creationism rather than science, and whitewashing history. Science denial and bogus history are unlikely to prepare students for life in contemporary American society.

I’ve linked to various lawsuits challenging religious discrimination practiced by religious “academies.” Significant numbers of those schools refuse to enroll gay children, or children of gay parents.

I have pointed out that vouchers shortchange rural residents and those in small towns, where there aren’t enough students to support alternative, private schools, and Indiana’s voucher program deprives their public schools of desperately needed funds.

I have echoed knowledgable others, like Doug Masson, who points out that pious rhetoric about giving options to poor minority children “trapped” in those terrible public schools is nothing more than a scam.

Back in 2019, Indiana’s voucher program cost taxpayers $161.4 million; by 2025 it will cost  $600 million. And forget “poor children.” Indiana’s voucher program disproportionately serves upper-middle-class white children, a majority of whom are clearly not “escaping failing schools” because–despite lawmakers’ original promises– they never attended public school.

As Doug Masson wrote about that 2019 report:

This reinforces my view that the real intention of voucher supporters was and is: 1) hurt teacher’s unions; 2) subsidize religious education; and 3) redirect public education money to friends and well-wishers of voucher supporters. Also, a reminder: vouchers do not improve educational outcomes. I get so worked up about this because the traditional public school is an important part of what ties a community together — part of what turns a collection of individuals into a community. And community feels a little tough to come by these days. We shouldn’t be actively eroding it.

No kidding!

“Choice” sounds great. Providing citizens with a wide freedom of choice–of religion, politics, lifestyle– is a quintessentially American goal. But voucher programs are evidence that institutionalized choices can also promote division and undermine civic cohesion.

In far too many communities today, the “educational choice” being offered is the opportunity to shield one’s children from intellectual and cultural diversity. Vouchers provide parents with tax dollars that allow them to insulate their children from  one of the very few remaining “street corners” left in contemporary American society. Whatever their original intent, vouchers today are mechanisms allowing parents to remove their children from public school classrooms and classmates that may be conveying information incompatible with those parents’ beliefs and prejudices.

That an otherwise credible candidate for Indiana Governor wants to make support for increased tribalism “universal” is appalling. At best, it tells me that Crouch is totally unfamiliar with the educational and social science research; at worst, it’s a sign that she is competing for the Christian Nationalist vote that is so large a component of today’s GOP.

It goes without saying that if Mike Braun emerges as the Republican nominee for Governor, he will double down on Crouch’s position.

Speaking of “choice”– Hoosiers have one next year.

One of the many reasons I have been so impressed with Jennifer McCormick, the Democrat running for Governor, is that–after trying to protect Indiana’s public schools as a Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction– she left a political party intent upon destroying public education.

Every schoolteacher in Indiana–and every citizen who understands the importance of America’s public schools–should choose to vote McCormick.



Indiana’s Senate Should Hang Tight..

Indiana’s legislature will end its current session this Saturday. (Your sigh of relief is appropriate.) Thus far–at least to the best of my knowledge–the House and Senate continue to disagree over whether to expand Indiana’s already far-too-generous school voucher program. The House wants to expand it; the Senate–mercifully–does not.

Vouchers were initially touted as a way to allow poor children to escape those “failing” public schools in order to improve educational outcomes. Enthusiasm for them waned as study after study rebutted virtually every argument for “school choice,” but lately–as the Right has trumpeted “parental rights” and attacked public schools as “woke”– proponents are once again having successes; South Carolina, for example, is expanding vouchers, and that state’s lawmakers are using the same dishonest rhetoric that Hoosier legislators employ.

SC senators that supported the bill for school choice vouchers spoke repeatedly about how they were motivated to help poor kids who were trapped in failing public schools and couldn’t afford other options. But on the last day of debate an amendment was filed to double the income threshold to help families making more than $100,000.

Just in case a member of Indiana’s Senate super-majority reads this blog and is on the fence about House efforts to sway the Senate, let me share a recent Time Magazine article by a professor of education policy at Michigan State, summarizing the multiple ways vouchers hurt students.The article begins by acknowledging the recent uptick in voucher programs, and notes that several states, including Indiana, have had such programs for several years. He then sets out what is known about the success or failure of these programs, asking “Do they work?” (The honest answer would be that these programs do achieve their actual goals: to funnel tax dollars to religious institutions, weaken or destroy teachers’ unions, and make war on the public schools.)

Of course, the purported goal of such programs is educational improvement. So what does the research have to say about that goal? The author of the article has studied school choice for nearly two decades, and–as he says–he’s in a good position to give an answer.

“Based on data from existing voucher programs, the answer is almost unambiguously negative.”

Let’s start with who benefits. First and foremost, the answer is: existing private school students. Small, pilot voucher programs with income limits have been around since the early 1990s, but over the last decade they have expanded to larger statewide initiatives with few if any income-eligibility requirements….In Arizona, more than 75% of initial voucher applicants had never been in public school—either because they were new kindergartners or already in private school before getting a voucher. That’s a problem because many voucher advocates market these plans as ways to improve educational opportunities for public school children.

For children who do transfer from a public school, the academic results are, in his words, “catastrophic.” 

 Although small, pilot-phase programs showed some promise two decades ago, new evaluations of vouchers in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show some of the largest test score drops ever seen in the research record—between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations of learning loss. That’s on par with what the COVID-19 pandemic did to test scores, and larger than Hurricane Katrina’s impacts on academics in New Orleans.

It turns out that elite private schools with strong academics “often decline to participate in voucher plans. Instead the typical voucher school is a financially distressed, sub-prime private provider often jumping at the chance for a tax bailout to stay open a few extra years.”

In Wisconsin, 41% of voucher schools have closed since the program’s inception in 1990. And that includes the large number of pop-up schools opening just to cash in on the new voucher pay-out. For those pop-up schools, average survival time is just 4 years before their doors close for good.

The author cites data showing that 20% of students leave voucher programs each year, either because they are disappointed, or because the schools (which-unlike public schools–can choose their students) push them out.

That is what research on school vouchers tells us. Vouchers are largely tax subsidies for existing private school families, and a tax bailout for struggling private schools. They have harmful test score impacts that persist for years, and they’re a revolving door of school enrollment. They’re public funds that support a financially desperate group of private schools, including some with active discriminatory admissions in place.

I applaud the Indiana Senate’s uncommon case of good sense. The last thing Indiana needs is expansion of a failed program that enriches fundamentalist religious schools while weakening Indiana’s struggling  public education system.

Fingers crossed that the Senate’s unusual manifestation of good sense makes it to Saturday…