Indiana’s School Voucher Lessons for Idaho Legislators

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The school vouchers debate this term could very well be “the most important debate we’ve had since a state was formed,” predicts Rod Gramer, executive director of Idaho Business for Education.

So what have been the experiences of other states that have already approved school vouchers, such as Indiana?

Not great, according to Chris Lagoni, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, who detailed his state’s history with school vouchers during a bill preview Monday hosted by Idaho Business for Education.

The bottom line: school vouchers and education savings accounts are no good for a fiscally conservative government, Lagoni said. His presentation read, “A Conservative Fiscal View on Why Coupons Don’t Serve the Interests of Rural America.”

Indiana is similar to Idaho in many ways. Like Idaho, Indiana exempted school budgets from local property taxes and increased the sales tax by a penny to pay for it, just like Idaho did in 2006. And like Idaho, Indiana has seen a precipitous fall in per-student education funding through the recession. And just like Idaho, Indiana has seen a surge in surcharges paid through property taxes to bolster public schools.

Indiana, however, had a double whammy. In 2011, the legislature extended the school vouchers.

Lagoni ticked the five criteria for a conservative government: fiscally responsible, smaller government, less taxation, transparency and accountability.

In every category, Indiana’s school voucher program underperformed.

Lagoni, who is also an assistant professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, found that while the state is spending more on education, per-student funding for public education fell by as much as 10% after the Great Recession and has not fully recovered.

Also of interest to those who advocate for Idaho vouchers is that Indiana’s education spending per student is $12,800. According to the most recent National Education Association report, Idaho has the lowest spending per student in the country at $8,376.

Lagoni reported that the number of students enrolled in private schools that do not use the state voucher system has declined, while the number of students enrolled in private schools that use the state voucher system has increased, suggesting that most vouchers simply went to students who were already enrolled, which is the case was a big concern about voucher programs.

Furthermore, of the 44,376 students enrolled in private schools and using vouchers, only 421 of those students had moved from a failing public school, putting a huge hole in the argument that vouchers are there to “save” kids from horrible schools “.

While Indiana’s coupon program started modestly, targeting low-income families, the program has expanded to now serve families with household incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty line.

A look at the numbers also showed that a large majority of Indiana students using vouchers lived in metropolitan areas rather than rural areas and were mostly white, not minority students.

Indiana has been in the coupon game for more than a decade, and Lagoni cited a number of studies showing a lack of academic achievement and an inability to help low-income students.

The presentation was modestly attended and I saw a number of lobbyists, business leaders and state legislators from both parties, as well as the new superintendent of public education, Debbie Critchfield.

After the presentation, R-Mountain Home Assemblyman Matthew Bundy, who teaches civics and government at Mountain Home High School, said he was open to discussing the choice of school. He said he didn’t want to talk specifically about education savings accounts, a suggestion likely to come up at this session, but said as a teacher he supports public education.

“I thought he made a very good argument that continued support for public education is the right conservative response,” he told me afterwards.

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers like Bundy can successfully crack down on advocates of public education and school vouchers in this session.

But at least they have Indiana’s example to make the case.

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Scott McIntosh is the Opinion Editor for the Idaho Statesman. A graduate of Syracuse University, he joined Statesman in August 2019. He was previously the editor of the Idaho Press and the Argus Observer, and owner and editor of the Kuna Melba News. He has received recognition from the Idaho Press Club and the National Newspaper Association for his editorials, columns, and reporting on education, business, and local government. Sign up for his weekly newsletter, The Idaho Way.
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