Analysis

The first major study of Indiana’s voucher program might not change much for the state’s strong pro-school choice legislature

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

The results of the first study of Indiana’s voucher program are in, but while interest in school choice research is growing across the country, it’s not clear the study will actually affect what’s happening in Indiana.

Republican leaders in the legislature spearheaded the program back in 2011, and since then, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize private school tuition — all without much hard evidence that vouchers lead to Indiana students doing better in school. That’s at odds with how the Indiana General Assembly has handled a much smaller investment in preschool for poor children, requiring a state-sponsored study as soon as the program began.

Read: Lawmakers want more research before they spend big on preschool. When it comes to vouchers, there’s no such hesitation

And although lawmakers haven’t made significant steps to expand the voucher program since income limits were loosened in 2013, they’ve continued to fund it at high levels and make small tweaks along the way.

The University of Notre Dame voucher study results themselves are middling: Students showed initial declines in math, with improvement later on. Test scores in English improved by a marginal amount over four years, a change the researchers deemed not “statistically meaningful.”

Joel Hand, a lobbyist for the Indiana Coalition of Public Education and longtime voucher critic, said he’s not surprised. Once held up as a way for kids to escape failing schools, voucher rhetoric nowadays has shed that aspect to focus squarely on the value of parental choice.

“The proponents of the voucher program told everyone that this was about making academic progress for one, and saving the state money,” Hand said. “Now here were are in 2017, six years later, and we see it has not saved money, it has cost the state millions of dollars,” and we see that academic progress has not been made.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who authored the original voucher bill, didn’t have a strong answer for whether the study would change how he and fellow lawmakers have pushed voucher policy. It seems like the results do little more than affirm what GOP lawmakers already believe to be true.

“Overall I think it’s positive for the voucher program in Indiana,” said Behning, who is chairman of the House Education Committee. “I don’t know how anybody, if you read the data, wouldn’t think it’s somewhat affirming that the longer you’re in the system the better you’re performing …  I’m sure there will be discussions on it on both sides.”

Early on, Indiana education officials abandoned an opportunity to work with researchers from Indiana University and study how vouchers affect students. The effort wasn’t picked back up when then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett left office.

Voucher growth might be slowing in the state, but politically, Indiana is still primed to continue as a stronghold for choice-based reform.

Republicans winning an overwhelming majority of seats in the House in 2012 was a boon to school choice advocates, as many of the new proposals put forward can now essentially move ahead unimpeded by lawmakers who do not support vouchers. Today, the GOP still retains that level of control of the House and Senate, as well as a Republican governor.

Little by little, the program has widened.

Indeed, in 2016, lawmakers passed a measure that would allow students to use a voucher if they started school during the second semester, instead of just the first. And this year, lawmakers passed measures that would allow kids to take classes outside public school one at a time, including with private providers.

Read: A new test, $22 million for preschool and 5 other major education bills that lawmakers approved in 2017

Lawmakers this year also loosened regulations on how long private schools must wait for vouchers as they pursue state accreditation, and they gave private schools the chance to appeal D or F grades with the Indiana State Board of Education so they could continue accepting new voucher students.

Controversial voucher language was also added to the preschool expansion bill passed this spring, offering another pathway to state dollars in kindergarten if a family participates in the state pilot program for preschool.

The absence of a definitive voucher study hasn’t halted moves to expand Indiana’s existing voucher program. But it’s not clear how much farther Indiana can wade into the school choice waters unless it seriously re-examines its existing programs — more radical voucher-like programs such as education savings accounts have been been introduced, but so far have failed to move forward.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, a key player in getting the law passed in 2011, said earlier this year that he’s uncertain about what an ESA could provide to a state that already has a “strong” choice program.

“Even advocates of ESAs have privately told me we’re not exactly sure, so I need to hear more to be convinced that it is the right choice for Indiana,” Bosma said. “If we didn’t have these other school choice measures targeting families already, there’s no doubt it would have a large benefit … I’m uncertain that ESAs add a very strong element that doesn’t already exist.”

At the end of the day, Indiana voucher supporters in the state legislature have the political will and means to expand the program as they see fit — and research doesn’t seem to factor much into the equation.

Chalkbeat reporter Hafsa Razi contributed to this report.

 

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.