Indianapolis, Ind. — After more than a decade of uninterrupted GOP rule in Indiana, the Hoosier State’s education system has been remade according to the blueprint of successive school choice advocates. In addition to a robust ecosystem of public charter and magnet schools, tens of thousands of students attend public schools they are not zoned for through liberal open enrollment policies. Businesses and individuals are given tax incentives for making donations to K-12 scholarship granting organizations. But most controversially, the state also has a rapidly growing voucher program which awards middle and low-income families thousands of dollars per year towards the cost of private school tuition.
Tony Bennett has been the top education official in two states, Indiana and Florida. In Indiana, where he served as state superintendent from 2009 to 2013, he oversaw the beginnings of many of the school choice programs that have taken root today. Currently, Bennett is a partner at Strategos Group, a public affairs and consulting business.
“In today’s educational climate in Indiana, school choice is woven into the entire educational framework,” said Bennett. “Our districts are constantly competing with charter schools in the community, with private schools in the community, but also with other public schools in their communities. So it’s become a free market system that benefits parents and children.”
Another of the state’s most prominent education reform activists, Betsy Wiley, is now the president and CEO of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice and high standards in all schools in Indiana. Wiley, who met with InsideSources for an interview in her downtown Indianapolis headquarters, was the deputy chief of staff for former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels until 2013, and had an active hand in the rollout of the state’s trailblazing school choice programs.
“Not just anyone can pick up and move to the best public school system in the state,” said Wiley, who suggested that critics of the school choice movement that send their children to private schools are hypocrites. “I think it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens, and those of us who are in public service, to try and provide every option and every opportunity to our families and students for the best education—to give them the best chance and the best future possible.”
On the other side of the debate is Theresa Meredith, a public school teacher who is midway through her second term as the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. In a telephone interview, Meredith argued that the term “voucher” is a misnomer, and that the state’s school choice program is actually a private school “subsidy.”
“Are we going to support the greater good, or are we going to fund a subsidy program? We can’t afford to do both with taxpayer dollars,” she said.
The array of school choice programs in Indiana is complex. The largest, by student participation, is an open enrollment regime that allows more than 70,000 students to choose to attend public schools in nearby counties. The state’s much smaller tax credit scholarship program serves over 10,000 students, and gives businesses and individuals a state tax credit for giving money to scholarship granting organizations (Wiley’s Institute for Quality Education being one of them).
It is the state’s medium-sized school choice program—which Meredith calls a subsidy—that has stirred the most passions, however. The state’s voucher program allows low-income and some middle-income parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools. Students eligible for free or reduced lunch receive credits worth 90 percent of what the state would spend to send them to a public school, or about $4,500 for a high schooler. The lower middle class students, those whose family incomes are at or below 200 percent of free or reduced lunch eligibility, can take advantage of vouchers worth 50 percent of per pupil state education expenditures.
In most cases, even the “full” voucher for lower income families is not enough to completely cover private school tuition costs. Karinya Crisler, a single mother in Indianapolis, for example, is using both the state voucher program as well as a tax credit scholarship to help transfer her teenage son from the public magnet high school he attended this past year to a local private Catholic high school that she both hopes will be a better fit for him. Even with both forms of school choice aid, however, Crisler will still have to pay around $2,000 out-of-pocket to finance the remaining cost of tuition.
Crisler bristles at the school choice critics who question whether the state should be sending money to private religious schools. She argued that she pays her taxes and that she should have a right to choose the education provider that makes the most sense for her family. She also argued that the public options in her area are not up to snuff.
“I don’t want to be making decisions for other kids, but I also don’t want others to make decisions for my kid,” she said. “He’s only going to be a junior in high school once; there are no do-overs.”
Originally, the state’s voucher program would have only benefited families like Crisler’s, but after Governor Daniels left office, former Governor and current Vice President Mike Pence championed legislation that expanded eligibility to lower-middle class students. As a result, the number of students availing themselves of publicly subsidized private school offerings has grown dramatically—to nearly 35,000 students during the 2016-2017 academic year. In part because of the rapid growth of the program, as well as because of a raging national school choice debate, Indiana’s voucher system has become a lightning rod for school choice proponents and opponents alike.
Opponents of vouchers, such as Meredith, have criticized the expansion of the state’s voucher program under Pence to include families with higher incomes and more students that had never attended public schools. They argue that the program has effectively become a way to subsidize the private religious education of white middle class families that would already be sending their children to those private schools regardless. Furthermore, voucher opponents also argue that similar programs do not do enough to prevent private schools from cherry-picking the best students, or discriminating against children that are more expensive to educate because of special needs.
Wiley disagreed with those characterizations of the voucher program In Indiana. She argued that even with the expansion, the pool of students who use the vouchers have a higher percentage of low-income and racial minority students than the overall state population. She also contested the idea that participating private schools are selectively enrolling students. “The data doesn’t support that accusation,” she said.
Another front in Indiana’s school choice battlefield revolves around the mechanism used to hold private schools participating in the voucher program accountable. Indiana’s private school accountability system is among the nation’s most rigorous. Wiley noted that the schools accepting vouchers must administer the same tests taken by public school students, and are then held to a higher standard of achievement. While a traditional public school or a public charter school can earn an “F” on the state accountability system for four years before facing a state intervention, a private school in the voucher program is barred from taking new voucher students if they score a “D” or an “F” for two years in a row.
“And I think that’s OK,” said Wiley, citing her group’s dedication to high educational standards.
Meredith said that while the accountability system does appear to be more strict on private schools “on the surface,” she also pointed out that many of the private schools successfully appeal their ratings to the State Board of Education. (Wiley argued that this usually only applies to private schools that focus on taking high numbers of struggling or special needs students who are unlikely to ever reach and exceed proficiency standards).
Perhaps the most damning critique of Indiana school choice, however, is a recently released study out of Notre Dame that has made waves with the finding that many students participating in the state’s voucher program see an early decline in math achievement before rebounding if they stick with their new schools for multiple years. Voucher opponents have seized on the news, in conjunction with other national voucher studies, as evidence that the school choice movement is less about improving academic outcomes for students, as it is about gradually privatizing the entire education system.
Wiley responded by arguing that the reports on the Notre Dame study don’t tell the full picture, and by categorically refuting the idea that her school choice advocacy is about dismantling the public school system. The Notre Dame study, which is a longitudinal study, only sheds light on the performance of a fraction of the students participating in the voucher program and only on the first few years of their enrollment at their new, private schools, she said. Like other school choice advocates, she argued that drawing grand conclusions from these kinds of studies is premature, as it is natural for some students to struggle as they adapt to new expectations and a new scholastic environment. She expressed some optimism that future years of data will show increased performance for participating students.
But Wiley’s sharpest comments were reserved for her political opponents that contend that the voucher program is a Trojan Horse for the eventual corporate takeover and complete privatization of education in the state. “I don’t think anyone’s goal is to privatize education. I don’t believe it’s Secretary DeVos’, I don’t believe that those who say it is somebody’s belief believe that it’s the belief. I think the belief is to open up the marketplace so students have the opportunity to learn in the best environment for them—and often that will be a public school.”
Wiley, whose parents were both public school teachers, estimates that even with complete school choice, 80 to 85 percent of the students in Indiana would stay in their public schools. She said that many of the public schools are “all-stars” that actually thrive when faced with competition. And there is some empirical support to back this argument. While the numbers on academic achievement for students taking advantage of vouchers in the state has been underwhelming, there have been signs that the public schools in Indiana have improved since school choice policy has been liberalized.
Bennett, the state’s former education chief and a longtime public school administrator, echoed Wiley’s comments. “I never saw [school choice] as a way to ruin public education, I saw it as a way to improve public education—and it has.”
But while Wiley and Bennett point to the K-12 advertisements and billboards that dot the landscape in Indiana—often paid for by enrollment-hungry public schools—as a sign the system is getting healthier, Meredith, the public school union leader (and curiously, a former parochial school teacher), disagrees. She argued that every educator in the state should be collaborating to create a world-class public system open to all students, not a combative environment with winners and losers. “Competition is the wrong way to go when we’re talking about human beings,” she said.