The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of vouchers in Indiana: They’re exploding

Students using vouchers and from charter schools attended a rally for school choice at the Statehouse in February.

This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. See all of the stories in the series.

Indiana has the nation’s most expansive, fastest-growing, and soon-to-be-largest private school voucher program in the nation, and it’s only four years old.

The speed of the growth has helped private schools, notably some Catholic schools that had been threatened by enrollment declines, and redirected millions from traditional public schools, drawing complaints from public education advocates.

If the program continues to grow, debates about direct public support for religious schools and program costs could intensify.

More kids eligible

From the start, Indiana’s program made more kids eligible than other large, general enrollment voucher programs, notably those in Wisconsin and Ohio. Most voucher programs are aimed at specific groups of students, such as disabled students, or are confined to a single city. It’s also common for voucher programs to be limited only to very low income students.

But the 2011 law that created Indiana’s voucher program allowed qualifying students anywhere in the state to access tax dollars that had been set aside for their public school educations and use the money to pay private school children. Voucher in Indiana are not restricted to just students in cities or schools with poor academic performance. And the original income limits of the program allowed middle income families who earn up to $62,000 for a family of four to to access vouchers at 50 percent of the amount that poorer families could receive. (Families of four with incomes of $42,000 or less can qualify to spend up to 90 percent of the state aid set aside their public school education on private school tuition.) New laws have since allowed children of parents who initially qualified only to see their incomes grow to keep their vouchers.

The political fight

The battle over vouchers is one of the most polarizing disagreements in education. The theory behind them — that students can use them to find schools that better fit their education needs and market forces from competition will force schools to improve to attract or retain students — is mostly identified with conservatives. While some notable Democrats support the idea, others who generally favor expanding school choice in other ways — including President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — draw the line at backing vouchers.

Vouchers were one of the top goals in the legislative agenda of then-Gov. Mitch Daniels’ second term, when he, then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett and their allies in the Republican-led statehouse pushed through a series of major education reforms that helped vault Indiana into the national debate over education reform. Other new laws that year expanded charter schools, limited teacher union bargaining and overhauled teacher evaluation.

Among the advocates for vouchers in Indiana is the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation. Named for the famed free-market economist, the foundation is one of the strongest advocacy groups supporting vouchers nationally. The national effort to expand the idea has helped the idea catch on in states like Ohio and Louisiana. But voucher proposals have also been defeated in other states, notably Utah and Washington.

Unprecedented growth

The first year of the program, 3,919 Indiana students used vouchers, the biggest first year enrollment for a voucher program in U.S. history. That number almost tripled in the second year. In 2013 voucher enrollment more than doubled, helping 19,809 Indiana students to attend private schools. Some voucher-accepting schools came to depend on the state aid that came with them to support their programs. In 2015, the program grew to more than 29,100 participants, just behind Wisconsin, the nation’s largest program.

That’s still a small percentage — roughly 2.6 percent of Indiana schoolchildren — but voucher programs usually start much smaller. Ohio, which has the nation’s only other statewide program and had 2,713 students when it launched in 2006. Seven years later, it now has about 17,000 students enrolled. Wisconsin, which launched the nation’s first major voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990, began with just 337 students its first year before expanding to other cities and growing to almost 30,000 this year.

Then in 2013, the Indiana legislature expanded the voucher program allowing siblings of those already using vouchers to also enroll in the program. The bill also allowed children living in the attendance boundaries of a D or F rated school to obtain vouchers.

Failed court challenge

In 2013, a court challenge led by the Indiana State Teachers Association charging the program was unconstitutional was turned away by the Indiana Supreme Court. The plaintiffs argued the program violated the state’s requirement for a uniform public school system and improperly spent public dollars on religious institutions.

The union also argued vouchers drain money that public schools need to maintain high quality programs.

An influx of voucher students has helped stabilize enrollment and finances for several inner city Catholic schools in Indianapolis that were threatened by falling enrollment. Voucher advocates at the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation say they expect demand to continue to rise, which they believe could even prompt private school expansion in the next few years.

Currently there are no limits on the number of qualifying students who can seek vouchers. After three years of expansion, both of the program rules and participation, the question is whether the Republican-controlled legislature will change the rules again in 2014, leave the program as it is or consider pulling back, as some Democrats have urged.

State says costs rise for vouchers

Vouchers redirect to private schools a dollar amount less than the full per pupil state aid for each student that uses them. So a small amount is returned to state coffers and shared among all public schools after all the program’s expenses are paid. In 2012-13, $4.9 million that was saved was redistributed statewide. That’s up from about $4.2 million the prior year.

In calculating the cost to the state for 2013-14, state officials had to estimate how many of the program’s new participants would have gone to private school anyway. An Indiana Department of Education analysis of the state’s school voucher program estimated it cost the state $16 million that year.

After more changes to voucher eligibility, the Indiana Department of Education argued they cost considerably more in 2014-15: about $40 million. Voucher advocates disputed that figure, arguing that the department failed to estimate how many voucher users likely would have attended private school without state aid, inflating the cost.

Voucher opponents argue that recent rule changes allow many children, such the siblings of those already in the program, to use public dollars for private school even if they intended to enroll in private school all along. In that case, they actually cost the state money by using state aid they otherwise would have foregone without the voucher program. The state only saves money when a student who would have gone to public school instead goes to private school because of the opportunity to use a voucher.

But voucher supporters said the state essentially assumed a wide swath of private school students would never have attended public school, therefore creating all new costs for Indiana to pay for their education. That’s unrealistic, they argued.

In 2015, voucher advocates succeeded in persuading the legislature to remove a limit of $4,800 for vouchers that go to elementary schools. The amount of the voucher now depends only on how much state aid is set aside for each student’s education in their home school districts.

-Updated December 2015





The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.

2016 Indiana governor race

The basics of Eric Holcomb on education: Moving past the policy wars

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The 2016 Republican nominee for Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for governor when it comes to education. A more detailed story about Eric Holcomb’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about John Gregg, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

Eric Holcomb has promised to be different from his predecessor when it comes to education if elected governor.

The Republican candidate says he’ll avoid the loud political fights that defined Gov. Mike Pence’s battles with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But Holcomb’s education policies are largely in line with Pence’s.

The Republican candidate took Pence’s place on the ballot in July after Pence dropped out of the race to join Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as his vice presidential running mate.

As a result of his late entry into the race, Holcomb’s education policies are less detailed than his opponent, Democrat John Gregg who is making his second run for governor after losing a close race to Pence in 2012.

Holcomb has also never before been elected to public office. So, unlike the former House speaker Gregg, he has little track record of votes or positions on the issues.

But in interviews, Holcomb, 48, has emphasized a desire to work more collaboratively with the next superintendent — Ritz or her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick — to try to move on from the many battles between Pence and Ritz.

Holcomb also says he wants a better state test to replace ISTEP, but he has struggled to explain how his vision for the exam would be different from the much maligned test that the state has used in recent years.

Early lessons and role models

Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, so he spent hours at her side when she was grading papers, both at home and after school. He credits her as his earliest example of work ethic and the value of learning.

After graduating Pike High School in Indianapolis and Indiana’s Hanover College, he spent six years in the Navy and then got involved in politics. For the next 20 years, Holcomb worked for Indiana Republicans, but nearly all of his work was out of the public eye.

He started out as an aide to Indiana congressman John Hostettler before first dipping his toe into politics with an unsuccessful run for congress in 2000.

He served as a campaign adviser to Mitch Daniels during Daniels’ first run for governor in 2003 then stayed on, working in the Daniels administration for seven years.

In 2010, Holcomb took over as state Republican Party chairman, a job he held for three years before leaving to become chief of staff to Repbulican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.

Holcomb attempted his second run for office in 2013 when he ran for his boss’ seat after Coats announced his retirement, but ended up dropping out of that race when Pence offered him the lieutenant governor job in March.

If Holcomb wins the election on Nov. 8, it will be his first elective victory, so voters don’t have much a personal record they can review. It’s not clear how closely Holcomb will follow the lead of the two Republican governors he served, both of whom shaped a more aggressive Republican education strategy that included more test-based accountability for teachers, students and schools, and support for expanding vouchers and charter schools.

A different tone at the statehouse

Despite his connections to Daniels and Pence, Holcomb has said he wants to set a new tone as governor that would be more cooperative than during the education battles of the last two administrations.

Under Daniels, the state expanded charter school sponsoring, launched the state private school voucher program, established an A-F school grading system and put in place a tough new teacher evaluation system.

After Ritz, a Democrat, scored an upset win in the 2012 superintendent’s race, Pence moved aggressively to block the policy changes she proposed.

The cumulative effect left many teachers feeling weary of politics and unfairly attacked.

From his introduction as a gubernatorial candidate, Holcomb has pledged to take steps to improve the relationship with the state superintendent and show more overt support for teachers.

Big differences with Democrats remain

On policy, Holcomb and Ritz are still far apart. Consider:

Testing. Ritz wants to junk the state’s ISTEP exam in favor of a series of smaller tests that could be scored more quickly and the results returned faster to teachers to use in the classroom. She has argued her approach would reduce test anxiety around the once-a-year exam for students and make the exams more useful.

Holcomb insists the state test should only be given once a year. He also has called for the scores to be delivered to teachers more quickly but has not explained how to do that while keeping the same basic design as ISTEP.

School choice. Holcomb describes himself as a strong supporter of school choice programs, like charter schools and vouchers. And he said he wants the state to take action to try to improve schools with persistently low test scores, even if it’s not necessarily through controversial state takeovers of local schools that the state tried under Daniels.

Preschool. Even where he agrees with Ritz and Gregg — that the state should expand its preschool pilot program — Holcomb takes a different approach. He said he does not think the state should offer to pay for preschool for any four-year-old who enrolls as Ritz and Gregg have proposed, just those from poor families. He also envisions a slower expansion of the five-county pilot that serves about 1,500 poor children today, perhaps a few more counties at a time.