Tag Archives: vouchers

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. 
 



 

 

 

 

 

Education And The GOP

Yesterday, I posted about the continued effort by self-described  Hoosier”conservatives” to expand the state’s already massive school voucher program–a program that has failed to deliver the educational benefits that justified it in the first place, while deepening the divides between Americans of different races and religions.

A few days ago, I had coffee with one of Indiana’s most conscientious and effective state senators–Fady Qaddoura (who also happens to be a former, excellent student of mine)– who has introduced a bill to fully fund pre-kindergarden in the state. We discussed that proposal and several other education measures that have been or are likely to be introduced during the legislative session that just began.

In addition to the coffee with Senator Qaddoura, I’ve scheduled meetings with several other people who are knowledgable about both education policy and the Indiana General Assembly.  (My retirement allows me to dabble in matters that interest or infuriate me, and–with some prodding from my youngest son–I’ve decided to follow education bills in this session.)

In the course of our discussion, Senator Qaddoura pointed to a very interesting–and very revealing–aspect of voucher legislation that had not previously occurred to me.

The GOP’s voucher program classifies families that earn up to $145,000 per year as “poor” enough to qualify; so the state pays for their kids to attend private schools. When it comes to qualification for state-funded childcare and/or pre-kindergarden, however, families bringing home a mere $27,500 are “too rich” for their children to qualify.

This makes perfect sense–if the actual goal of the voucher program is to encourage an exodus from the state’s public schools, a goal that furthers other obvious goals of Indiana’s GOP: destroying the teacher’s union, and finding a “work-around” of the First Amendment’s prohibition against funneling tax dollars to religious organizations.

The difference in those definitions certainly sends a message about which Hoosiers our Republican legislators are there to serve.

The session has just started, but thus far, a proposall being referred to as the house’s “High School Redesign” bill has been introduced and given a low number (H.B. 1002), suggesting that it is is a GOP priority.  As another friend described it,

Basically, it is a new voucher-like program for high schoolers who would get some of their education through an employer/a company.  Student support dollars would follow the child to pay for this experience.

I haven’t yet read the bill, but if my friend’s description is correct, it looks like yet another effort to divert dollars from public school classrooms–at a time when Indiana ranks 41st among the states in teacher pay and the state’s public schools  have a massive teacher shortage.

Then, of course, there’s the culture war. Education lobbyists fully expect that an anti-CRT bill will be filed, and probably a “Don’t Say Gay” Florida rip-off.

One “culture war” effort that previously failed has already been refiled. It is back again in both the House and Senate (HB 1130 and SB 12). The bill’s synopsis reads:

Synopsis:Material harmful to minors. Removes schools and certainpublic libraries from the list of entities eligible for a specified defense to criminal prosecutions alleging: (1) the dissemination of material harmful to minors; or (2) a performance harmful to minors. Adds colleges and universities to the list of entities eligible for a specified defense to criminal prosecutions alleging: (1) the dissemination of material harmful to minors; or (2) a performance harmful to minors.

I assume that the identification of “harmful” material includes any reference to the existence of LGBTQ Hoosiers, and that the inclusion of “performance” is aimed at those “grooming” Drag Queen Story Hours. (Can’t have someone in a costume reading Green Eggs and Ham…)

Also on the culture war front, there are a few bills that would turn Indiana’s currently non-partisan school board elections into partisan contests. (Wouldn’t want a Democrat sneaking onto one of those school boards…)

There is some good news. In addition to Senator Qaddoura’s bills (one of which includes tightening oversight of charter schools) there is evidently a possibility that Indiana will finally join the great majority of states that pay for textbooks.

I realize that many if not most of the people who follow this blog don’t live in Indiana–and may be uninterested in details about our regressive legislature.  That said, these efforts are hardly confined to Indiana. ALEC provides the templates for many of these bills to numerous states, and observers fully expect our General Assembly to “borrow” from states like Florida, where Governor “what Constitution?” DeSantis and his obedient minions in that state’s legislature continue to wage war on gays, “woke” corporations and academic freedom.

Unlike Vegas, what happens in The Backward States does not stay in The Backward States.Unfortunately.

 

 

 

 

Another Push For Vouchers

Despite the massive amount of data showing that voucher programs have failed to improve learning outcomes, voucher proponents are gearing up for another effort. The Indiana Capital Chronicle recently published a commentary from Andrea Neal, promoting the notion of “universal” vouchers–“choice” for everyone!

I sent the following rebuttal to the Chronicle, but Steve Hinnefeld got there first.

___________________________

During my academic career, I did extensive research on school vouchers. (I authored the entry on the subject for the Encyclopedia of Public Administration.)

“Choice” sounds great. Providing citizens with a wide freedom of choice–of religion, politics, lifestyle– is a quintessentially American goal. The problems occur when institutionalized choices promote division, undermine civic cohesion, and fail to provide the promised benefits. In the case of vouchers, numerous studies have confirmed that the theorized educational outcomes have failed to materialize, and that children using vouchers to attend private schools have—at best—done no better than their peers who remained in public school, and more often, did considerably worse.

Furthermore, in far too many communities, 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, as vouchers work today, they 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.

In virtually all states with active voucher programs, including Indiana, well over 90% of participating schools are religious. There is considerable evidence that fundamentalist religious schools are teaching creationism rather than science–but it isn’t simply the science curriculum that is being corrupted by dogma. As a 2021 article from The Guardian reported, those schools are equally likely to distort accurate history.

One history textbook exclusively refers to immigrants as “aliens”. Another blames the Black Lives Matter movement for strife between communities and police officers. A third discusses the prevalence of “black supremacist” organizations during the civil rights movement, calling Malcolm X the most prominent “black supremacist” of the era.

The textbooks reviewed by the Guardian are used in thousands of private religious schools–schools that receive tens of thousands of dollars in public funding every year. They downplay descriptions of slavery and ignore its structural consequences.  The report notes that the books “frame Native Americans as lesser and blame the Black Lives Matter movement for sowing racial discord.”

As Americans fight over wildly distorted descriptions of Critical Race Theory–a manufactured culture war “wedge issue” employed by parents fighting against more inclusive and accurate history instruction- -the article correctly points out that there has been virtually no attention paid to the curricula of private schools accepting vouchers.

The Guardian reviewed dozens textbooks produced by the Christian textbook publishers Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and Accelerated Christian Education, three of the most popular textbook sources used in private schools throughout the US. These textbooks describe slavery as “black immigration”, and say Nelson Mandela helped move South Africa to a system of “radical affirmative action”.

The Abeka website boasts that in 2017, its textbooks reached more than 1 million Christian school students. The Accelerated Christian Education website claims its materials are used in “tens of thousands of schools.” One of its textbooks still refers to the civil war as the “war between the states,” and has a section titled “Black immigration”–characterizing the slave trade as “sometimes unwilling immigration.”

With respect to Reconstruction, the Accelerated Christian Education textbook contained the following characterization:

Under radical reconstruction, the south suffered. Great southern leaders and much of the old aristocracy were unable to vote or hold office. The result was that state legislatures were filled with illiterate or incompetent men. Northerners who were eager to make money or gain power during the crisis rushed to the south … For all these reasons, reconstruction led to graft and corruption and reckless spending. In retaliation, many southerners formed secret organizations to protect themselves and their society from anarchy. Among these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, a clandestine group of white men who went forth at night dressed in white sheets and pointed white hoods.”

Unsurprisingly, the books were equally biased against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Science denial, bogus history and homophobia are unlikely to prepare students for life in contemporary American society.

The U.S. Constitution gives parents the right to choose a religious education for their children. It does not impose an obligation on taxpayers to fund that choice, and we continue to do so at our peril.

 

 

School Scandal

I recently had a disquieting conversation with a friend of mine about the political perspectives of certain college students. She teaches as an adjunct at my former university, and noted recent conversations with students who were expressing opinions that could only be described as  examples of Christian Nationalism. 

She also noted that these sentiments almost always came from students who had come to the university from private Christian schools–many of them thanks to Indiana’s massive voucher program.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize that program, and I have done so repeatedly–in just 2021, I explained its dangers  here, here and here.

The voucher program in Indiana has not only failed to improve educational outcomes, it has funneled money primarily to religious schools, allowing many of those institutions to produce students who are–at best–unacquainted with democratic diversity and unaccepting of Americans with different values and beliefs. At worst, they teach students to disdain Americans who don’t share their fundamentalist dogmas.

Steve Hinnefeld’s blog, School Matters, recently reported on the massive growth of Indiana’s voucher program, and its staggering costs.

Indiana awarded $241.4 million in the 2021-22 school year to pay tuition and fees for students to attend private schools. That’s 44% more than the state spent on vouchers the previous year.

The increase, detailed in a Department of Education report, isn’t surprising. The Indiana General Assembly in 2021 vastly expanded the voucher program, opening it to families near the top of the state’s income scale and making the vouchers significantly more generous.

Nearly all the 330 private schools that received voucher funding are religious schools. Some discriminate against students, families and employees because of their religion, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Indiana is bankrolling bigotry.

Initially, vouchers were sold to the public as a way to allow poor, primarily minority children to escape failing public schools. Perhaps that was the goal of a few proponents, but it is now evident that the primary goal was to construct a “work-around” of the First Amendment’s prohibition on publicly funding religious institutions–Hinnefeld reports that some 20% of voucher households last year had incomes of $100,000 or more. (Indiana’s median household income is $58,000.)

When the program started, supporters said it wouldn’t cost anything, because, if the students didn’t have vouchers, the state would be paying for them to attend public schools. They don’t even pretend to believe that anymore. In 2021-22, 70% of voucher students had no record of having attended a public school in the state. Most voucher funding is going to families that intended all along to send their kids to private schools — and often had the means to do so.

The program initially served both low- and middle-income families. Last year, the legislature threw the door open to high-income families. Now, a family of five making $172,000 can receive vouchers worth over $5,400 on average per child. For about half of all voucher students, the award covers the full cost of tuition and fees at their private school.

Vouchers also promote racial segregation. Far from being a way for poor Black families to escape inferior “ghetto” schools, Hinnefeld reports that  Indiana’s voucher population has grown whiter and markedly less poor–some 60% of voucher students are white. Considering that vouchers tend to be practical primarily in urban areas, that is an over-representation. Only 10.5% of voucher students are Black, compared to 13.5% of Indiana public and charter school students.

The program might still seem justifiable if Indiana private schools were academically superior. They aren’t. Researchers at the universities of Kentucky and Notre Dame found that students who received vouchers fell behind their peers who remained in public schools.

Hinnefeld quotes Doug Masson, who insists that there were three real reasons Indiana legislators created the voucher program: to reward their friends, to punish the teachers’ unions, and to fund religious education.

And that “religious education” is overwhelmingly fundamentalist and nationalist. A study I referenced in one of my previous posts analyzed textbooks from two major publishers of Christian educational materials ― Abeka and BJU Press–used in a majority of Christian schools. The study examined  the books’ coverage of American history and politics and found that they delivered what you might call a “curated”(i.e. skewed) history, and taught that contemporary America is experiencing “an urgent moral decline that can only be fixed by conservative Christian policies.”

Even more troubling, the analysis found that language used in the books “overlaps with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” One scholar was quoted as saying that, as voucher programs have moved more children into these schools, Christian Nationalism has become more mainstream.

Your tax dollars at work……there’s a reason I call Indiana’s General Assembly the World’s Worst Legislature.

 

 

 

 

 

A Way Around

Sane Americans need to vote as if our lives depend upon it, because in a very real sense, they do.

In the meantime…

When the religious warriors on the Supreme Court handed down their decision requiring states that funded private schools to fund religious ones as well– Carson v. Makin– our daughter (who spent 20 years on our local school board) asked whether there was now any way to fashion voucher programs that would prevent most religious schools from getting taxpayer money. Surely good lawyers could devise such a work-around.

Turns out there is. And it’s a tactic that can also be used to blunt some of the most dangerous consequences of the Court’s even-more-radical gun decision. (Unfortunately, I see no comparable “work arounds” for the Court’s horrifying abortion decision.)

Maine shows the way to keep public dollars out of church coffers. In Carson, the Court based its decision on the disparate treatment of religious and nonreligious private schools, so Maine eliminated that disparity–and did so in the best possible way.

What is surprising is how little the 6-to-3 decision in the Maine case, Carson v. Makin, will matter practically. And the reason offers a glimpse of hope for those who worry about a future dominated by the court’s conservative supermajority — including the many Americans troubled by the court’s decision in the gun case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

Let’s start with the Carson case. Anticipating this week’s decision, Maine lawmakers enacted a crucial amendment to the state’s anti-discrimination law last year in order to counteract the expected ruling. The revised law forbids discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and it applies to every private school that chooses to accept public funds, without regard to religious affiliation.

The impact was immediate: The two religious schools at issue in the Carson case, Bangor Christian Schools and Temple Academy, said that they would decline state funds if, as Maine’s new law requires, accepting such funds would require them to change how they operate or alter their “admissions standards” to admit L.G.B.T.Q. students.

The “fix” to Maine’s law allows religious schools to participate in the program on an equal basis with other private schools–and as an added bonus, ensures that secular private schools with discriminatory practices will also be denied the right to participate.

In an aside, the Court acknowledged that Maine also retains the right to eliminate its voucher program at any point. (Since most voucher programs–like Indiana’s– have failed to improve student outcomes while bleeding the public schools of needed resources, that’s a right I think they should exercise. But I digress.)

As the linked Times essay pointed out, a version of Maine’s tactic can also be adapted to use by the states (all blue) trying to combat gun violence.

Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion made clear that the constitutionality of restrictions is historically “settled” in “sensitive places” such as legislatures, courtrooms and polling locations, and that “modern regulations” may “prohibit” the carry of firearms in “new” places. Given that, states should enact an expansive list of so-called sensitive places where guns may not be carried. Though Justice Thomas did not specify which those might be, during oral arguments in November, several justices pondered that they might include public transportation, crowded venues, university campuses and places where alcohol is served.

 Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in a concurrence joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, moreover, that while states may not impose restrictions that prevent “ordinary, law abiding citizens” from carrying a gun to defend themselves, states can still enact rigorous requirements for a public carry permit, such as stringent background and mental health records checks and completion of regular training courses.

Another promising reform for states to consider would be to require gun owners to possess firearm liability insurance. Not only would such a requirement ensure that victims of gun violence can recover for their losses and “provide financial incentives for responsible arms carrying,” but it also draws strong historical support from a host of 19th century “surety laws” recognized in the court’s opinion.

That last “promising reform” echoes several comments made to this blog. 

This guest essay reminds us that–as critical as it is to repair a broken and increasingly illegitimate  Court–until that repair can be accomplished, we are not without resources to fight, or at least blunt, the consequences of the Court’s most dramatic departures from constitutional precedent and common sense. We just need lawmakers who understand the need to do so.

That means that the most important thing we can do is remember in November which party is responsible for replacing Justices committed to the Constitution with  a religious tribunal–and vote accordingly.