Betsy DeVos

Six things to know about Indiana’s school voucher program, a possible model for ed sec nominee Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that is integrated by design and accepts taxpayer funded vouchers.

Philanthropist Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, did not succeed in getting a school voucher program off the ground in her home state of Michigan.

But her advocacy helped influence the program in neighboring Indiana, which is expansive, entrenched — and could be a model if Trump and DeVos move forward with trying to push a national voucher program.

Here are six important things to know about vouchers in Indiana:

1. Indiana’s program is the biggest in the country — costing local districts students and funding.

It allows thousands of families to have thousands of dollars to send their kids to private schools that they would otherwise have to pay for, or win scholarships to attend. The number of students using vouchers rose from 3,911 in 2011, when the program launched, to 32,686 in 2016.

That total makes Indiana’s voucher program the largest of any state, with nearly 3 percent of kids using public funds to pay private school tuition.

If a public school student applies for and receives a voucher to attend a private school, they take their state funding with them, so districts and schools where those students might otherwise have enrolled shoulder the cost. Voucher advocates argue that schools can handle the loss because they have fewer students to educate. But critics say that isn’t the reality of how school budgets work: If a class loses two of 20 students, its teacher doesn’t see her salary reduced by 10 percent.

Funding issues have fueled criticism of the program. In 2013, the Indiana State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit to stop it, arguing in part that the program caused public dollars to be spent improperly on religious institutions. The Indiana Supreme Court dismissed the suit, but the union has continued to make the argument. And even Jennifer McCormick, the small-district superintendent who, with DeVos support, unseated Democratic State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, has expressed concerns about programs that divert money from public schools.

2. Indiana’s program looks a lot like what DeVos says she wants.

Trump’s proposal is for low-income families to be eligible for vouchers, but his vice president, former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has supported vouchers for middle-income families, too. DeVos is more in Pence’s camp, and her political action committee, the American Federation for Children, has poured $1.3 million into local voucher advocacy efforts.

Indiana’s eligibility is unusually wide open. Students who get vouchers don’t only come from families near the poverty line (as in North Carolina), have special needs (as is a requirement in several states, including Florida), or be zoned for low-performing schools or districts (as in Cleveland).

The only restriction is family income, but even there Indiana’s rules are generous. A family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive a voucher of up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. Since 2013, families earning up to $89,725 per year have also been eligible — but they get only half the state aid their district would receive.

3. It is increasingly serving students from middle-class families.

A growing portion of Indiana voucher users are from middle-class families, and growth has been greatest among suburban families.

In 2016, 22 percent of voucher students were from the suburbs, compared to 16 percent in 2011. The portion of voucher users living in rural areas also rose slightly during that time — even though vouchers are often impractical in areas where there are not enough students to sustain multiple schools.

As the proportion of urban families using vouchers fell, so did the proportion of students of color. During the first year, black students — who are 12 percent of the state’s students — made up about a quarter of voucher students in the state. That number is down to 13 percent now. Hispanic student enrollment is down as well, to 18 percent, even as Hispanic student enrollment has shot up across the state in the last five years.

In total, 60 percent of Indiana voucher users are white, and about 31 percent are from middle-income families — not exactly the student population that struggles most in the state’s schools.

4. It has steered students away from public schools — but also probably helped families make the choices they were going to make anyway.

A rationale for vouchers — and one DeVos has offered — is that they let families escape low-performing public schools that aren’t helping their kids. But over time, the proportion of Indiana voucher users moving from public schools has fallen sharply. In 2011, just 9 percent of voucher users had never before gone to public school. That was true for more than half of students using vouchers in 2016.

Another question is whether vouchers allow families to choose private schools they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. The evidence in Indiana is mixed: Since the program launched, private school enrollment has grown — but less rapidly than voucher use, suggesting that some new students attend private school because of vouchers, but other voucher recipients would attend private school regardless.

And as is often the case when vouchers are introduced, religious schools have benefitted heavily. Vouchers have allowed some Catholic schools to stave off closure, and parents who use vouchers say the opportunity for their children to get religious instruction at school was the most important reason they chose their schools. Most of the non-religious schools that accept vouchers cost far more than the cost of the voucher, making them unaffordable for low-income families.

Critics of vouchers say the data points add up to a problematic picture. “How many of the kids that are actually receiving vouchers were ever going to go to a public school anyway?” Teresa Meredith, head of the state teachers association, said in June. “I think it shows that it’s really not helping the kids that it was promised to help.”

5. The program has more regulations than DeVos might like.

A hallmark of Devos’s philosophy appears to be opposition to regulation of schools — she recently worked to oppose added oversight for charter schools in Detroit. Ordinarily, private schools in Indiana face very few state restrictions, but schools that accept vouchers must act in some ways like their public school counterparts.

First, they have to get approval from the state to accept vouchers. Once approved, they must be accredited, give the state’s annual test, known as ISTEP; evaluate teachers in part based on student test scores; and receive A-F accountability grades. They’re also vulnerable to consequences if their students consistently post low test scores — including losing their ability to accept vouchers from new students.

The regulations didn’t bother Republican lawmakers because many Indiana private schools already had accreditation and met some of the other requirements to be able to compete in the state’s high school athletics association, according to Republican Rep. Bob Behning.

Voucher schools aren’t allowed to censor materials related to American history and must maintain libraries that include the U.S. Constitution and other documents. (Indiana’s standards do not require teaching contraception, an issue for some private schools in other states with vouchers.)

6. Vouchers haven’t helped students learn more.

One argument that voucher proponents make is that families can choose the schools that are going to serve their children best. But across the country, a growing body of research suggests that vouchers have limited or no effect on student learning. Locally, a new new long-term study out of Indianapolis, done by researchers at Notre Dame University, found that students who switched from traditional public schools to Catholic schools actually did worse in math.

One possible explanation: Vouchers cause students to change schools when they otherwise would not. “All research that we know of is pretty convergent on the conclusion that mobility for students is bad,” said Ashlyn Nelson, an education researcher and professor at Indiana University.

Watch list

What we’ll be listening for at the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Michigan Republican Betsy DeVos in President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. secretary of education.

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren keeps her promises, Betsy DeVos is in for a challenging confirmation hearing next week.

DeVos, who President-elect Donald Trump has chosen to run the U.S. Department of Education, will likely face questions from Democrats about her advocacy for school vouchers and her long history of philanthropic and political giving during the hearing, which has been postponed until Jan. 17.

With a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, Cabinet picks are expected to be confirmed without much trouble. But the hearing will be the first real chance for Americans to learn about the Michigan philanthropist’s vision for their schools.

Here’s what we’ll be listening for:

How she wants to improve education for students in traditional public schools, and whose job she thinks that is.

DeVos has a strong track record of lobbying for charter schools and vouchers that allow families to use public funding to pay private school tuition. But she’s stayed mum on many issues relevant to students attending traditional public schools.

How often should students take standardized tests? What does DeVos think those test scores should be used for? Should federal officials continue to push for schools to suspend fewer students, or for states to improve education for English language learners? The U.S. Department of Education has weighed in on all of these questions over time, so senators might want to know how DeVos would approach them.

The future she envisions for the department she’s been chosen to lead.

The broad, bipartisan consensus about improving education that has held for years is is falling apart, creating an opening for some Republicans who don’t support the very existence of a federal education department. They have begun to outline a legal, practical roadmap for dismantling it. Would DeVos support any of those moves?

How a big voucher plan might work, and her plans for the education budget.

Trump has promised a $20 billion school choice plan for students from poor families, with the money coming from a combination of federal and state sources. Beyond that, he hasn’t offered many details.

If that is her vision, too, would she use money from other programs, like Title I funds meant for educating poor students, to do it? Or should it work like Indiana’s voucher program, which she has influenced? That state’s program, the biggest in the nation, increasingly serves students from middle-class families and those who never attended public school.

Concerns about her many potential conflicts of interest.

As philanthropists, DeVos and her husband have given away more than a billion dollars. Her education policy political action committee has handed out even more. She has stepped down from the PAC’s leadership and provided substantial information about her finances and campaign contributions, but her official ethics review is ongoing. Senators could reasonably ask whether those longstanding ties can so easily be severed, and whether any of them could continue to influence her judgment. (On the other hand, she’s also given to many of them.)

Whether she plans to make changes at the Office of Civil Rights.

The Obama administration bulked up this office within the federal education department. Some civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale it back, and Politico recently reported that DeVos had spoken about the office with Republican Sen. James Lankford, who is skeptical about its work to ensure transgender students have certain protections in schools.

Her reflections on Detroit and Michigan schools, where she has wielded heavy influence.

DeVos and her PAC have advocated for the dismantling of Michigan’s largest school district. Does she believe that the country in general would be better off with a system of disconnected charter schools?

She’s also worked to protect the state’s charter schools from additional regulation. Critics — including current U.S. Education Secretary John King — say the lack of enforced quality standards for Michigan charter schools hurts students. Does she acknowledge an issue?

How she’ll fill in the gaps in her education CV.

DeVos hasn’t worked in a school, and she didn’t attend or send her children to public schools, either. Senators, Warren included, have promised to ask why she thinks she’s right for the job.

This story has been updated to reflect the new date for DeVos’ confirmation hearing.

Weighing in

Tennessee teachers group cautions Alexander about Trump’s pick for ed chief

PHOTO: Courtesy betsydevos.com
Betsy DeVos of Michigan has helped shape her state's schools through advocacy and philanthropy and is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. secretary of education.

Tennessee’s second-largest teacher organization wants U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander to hear teachers’ reservations about Betsy DeVos before voting whether to confirm her as the nation’s education chief.

In a letter to the Tennessee Republican released Wednesday, the leader of the Professional Educators of Tennessee questioned President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education due to her avid support for school vouchers and lack of experience in public schools.

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PHOTO: ProEdTN.org
J.C. Bowman

“Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware,” writes executive director J.C. Bowman on behalf of the group’s 8,000 members.

Bowman said DeVos’ advocacy of using taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition may “well cloud her desired support of public schools.”

“We must focus on making our public schools successful,” Bowman writes. “…Choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.”

Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Alexander already has promised to ensure DeVos’ “swift nomination.”

DeVos, a Republican billionaire from Michigan, has never worked in public schools, but she and her husband, Dick, have been long-time advocates and philanthropists in support of school choice policies. Groups that receive funding from her have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Tennessee legislative races in the state’s ongoing tug-of-war over vouchers.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Alexander is a prominent voice on national education policy. A former governor of Tennessee and education chief under President George H.W. Bush, he has served in the Senate since 2003, and co-sponsored the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Alexander was quick to laud Trump’s selection of DeVos last month, calling her an “excellent choice.”

Bowman’s letter is significant because the Professional Educators of Tennessee strives to distance itself from either major party’s political agenda and does not spend money on political campaigns, though Bowman previously worked with Republican lawmakers in other states, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. By contrast, the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers organization, often aligns itself with Democratic lawmakers.

TEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association, has released a statement expressing similar reservations about DeVos, while national education groups that favor tuition vouchers have heaped praise on Trump’s choice. TEA also urged its members on Facebook to sign an open letter from NEA and the American Federation of Teachers expressing concerns about DeVos. 

Discussion on DeVos’ nomination among Tennessee’s education community has been confined mostly to social media, with few groups speaking out either in support or against Trump’s pick.

Here is Bowman’s letter in full:

Dear Senator Alexander,

Thank you for your continued leadership as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act. A strong public education system is a key to our democracy, a foundation to build our economy, and the means by which we can help all Tennessee children achieve their dreams.

Professional Educators of Tennessee is the fastest growing teacher association in our state. We are non-partisan and our organization is unaffiliated with the national teacher unions. Not all educators are members of the NEA or AFT. In fact, there are more educators that are members of independent education associations than the AFT. We are completely funded by the dues of our members. Our members are educators from the state of Tennessee. We do not endorse political candidates, or use their members’ dues to fund political candidates.

I have worked with you previously on numerous occasions from American Legion Boy’s State as a teenager, to various political endeavors, and to address numerous public education challenges within the state of Tennessee. Today, I am writing to share our organization’s reservations in regards to the nomination of Ms. Betsy DeVos for the position as Secretary of Education.

There are two issues of immediate concern for our members. The first is that Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware. In your case, when you served as Secretary of Education, you had the prerequisite background, having grown up as a child of public school educators and an advocate of public schools as Governor of Tennessee. Ms. DeVos lacks that background and may not fully understand the historical and philosophical basis for public education. Out of the roughly 55.5 million K-12 students in America, 49.5 million of them are in our public schools, which is a little over 89%.

The second issue, her advocacy of vouchers funded through the use of public tax dollars, may well cloud her desired support of public schools. Vouchers are not a magic bullet, and may do little to improve the quality of public schools. Vouchers are also not a solution to problems in urban cities. These cities face societal challenges well beyond the classroom door. Most communities lack the number of high quality private schools to meet any real demand created by vouchers. It is clear that for now and the foreseeable future, a vast majority of children will be educated by public schools. We must focus on making our public schools successful. Therefore, choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.

I appreciate your strong support of students, educators, and public education in Tennessee, especially your commitment to local control of public education. We encourage Ms. DeVos to go out and visit our public schools and see the incredible things that educators are doing every day across our state and nation. We think she would be amazed. We welcome a dialogue with Ms. DeVos and yourself to address our concerns and invite you both to talk directly to our members to assure them that as Secretary of Education she will support the mission of public schools and has the necessary experience in improving them.

Warmest Regards,

JC Bowman, Ph.D

Executive Director