Indiana launched its school voucher program in 2011, ostensibly to help children from poor families find alternatives to underperforming public schools. But it quickly morphed into something else: a government subsidy for religious education and an entitlement program for private school parents.
Now, some lawmakers and proponents are promoting the idea of ”universal coupons‘, in which the state would help ensure that every student could attend virtually any private school. They seem to be trying to keep up with Arizona, which became last year first state to implement a universal program.
But coupons were a bad idea from the start. Rather than duplicating an ill-conceived project, lawmakers should better support the public schools that teach nine out of ten Hoosier children.
Coupons are bad for public schools, which lose funding when students choose private schools. They’re bad for the state, which wastes money on college grants that many parents don’t need. They’re bad for communities, which may lose the cohesion and pride that strong public schools can provide.
Above all, they are bad for children. Vouchers are based on the myth that private schools provide quality education. Often that is not true.
Don’t ignore the data
Professor Josh Cowen of Michigan State University points out that this was the case four independent, high-quality studies on the scientific effects of government voucher programs. They all found that students lost ground when they got a coupon and moved from public to private school.
These were some of the biggest negative impacts on learning that educational researchers have seen, Cowen writes. In the Louisiana program, “student learning loss has been nearly double what the COVID-19 pandemic has been lately to test scores, and those coupon scores have held up over time.” Investigating Coupons in Indiana also found significant setbacks in student learning.
While coupon advocates like to base their endorsement on libertarian philosophy, Coupons have a dirty history. After the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools in 1954, communities throughout the South opened “segregation academies,” private schools for white students. In many cases, families received government vouchers to help pay tuition and avoid public schools with black students.
The same principle — government funding for schools that disfellowship students based on their identity — is fundamental to Indiana’s voucher program. Proponents say vouchers promote “freedom” because students choose their school. In fact, schools choose their students.
Not the same playing field
Private schools that accept vouchers cannot disfellowship students because of their race, but they can and often do. discriminate on other grounds. They may reject students based on their parents’ sexual orientation or gender identity. They can reject students with disabilities and children from immigrant backgrounds who are learning English. You can say no to children who are not “a good fit”. You can get families to sign a religious statement of belief. You can Fire teachers and counselors because they are gay.
State support for this discrimination is significant. Indiana spent $241.1 million on coupons pay over 44,000 students to attend 330 private schools in 2021-22. And there is little or no accountability for how the money is spent. Unlike public and charter schools, private schools are not subject to public auditing, their board meetings need not be public, and their finances may be secret.
Indiana’s voucher program wastes money because many recipients would have paid for a private school without a voucher. Currently, a family of five earning up to $172,000 can qualify. One in five coupon families in 2021-22 had income over $100,000.
If Indiana had unlimited finances, it might not matter, but it doesn’t. The $241.1 million the state spent on coupons last year happens to be almost exactly what Indiana should spend money to fix its lackluster public health system. Government funding for public schools has also lagged behind, particularly in areas of high poverty. Indiana has rank low for teacher salariesand schools are struggling to hire educators.
The philosophy behind the quest for universal vouchers is that education is a private property, something we buy as if it were a car. But education is better understood as a public good. We all benefit when children learn the skills to become productive, well-rounded adults. Strong public schools build strong communities and a strong state.
The Indiana Constitution requires the legislature to provide “a general and unified system of common schools, in which education shall be free and open equally to all.” A universal voucher program would turn this principle on its head. Let’s hope our lawmakers know better.
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