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.



Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”