School Choice

Ritz: Indiana shouldn't expand its voucher program

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz talks with reporters following an Indiana State Board of Education meeting in February.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz made it clear today that she won’t support legislative efforts to expand taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.

In an update to her legislative priorities, Ritz said she is opposed to measures that would make it easier for families to use vouchers to transfer schools in the middle of the year, even if they’ve already used a voucher that year at another school.

Ritz has no plans to go after the state’s existing voucher program, she said, but cautioned against efforts to relax its rules.

“We already have school choice in place, so those (existing vouchers) would remain to be in place as they are,” Ritz said. “What I’m really talking about is let’s not expand how you get school choice.”

Ritz is referring, in part, to an idea in Senate Bill 334, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, that would allow schools to accept voucher students for the spring semester as late as Jan. 15 — four months after the current Sept. 1 deadline.

The bill would eliminate provisions in state law that limit students to just one voucher per school year and would do away with current rules requiring students who leave a private school before the year ends to pay back the rest of that year’s tuition. House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he plans to hear the bill, a signal it could have support among House lawmakers.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill last month, Yoder said he proposed the bill, which passed the Senate last week 40-9, for programs similar to ones at The Crossing, a network of private religious alternative schools that serve about 2,500 Indiana students.

The network includes 28 accredited private Christian schools spread throughout Indiana that cater specifically to students who struggled at other schools, were expelled or dropped out.

Yoder’s bill, however, would apply to any eligible student who wants to transfer to an eligible private school, not just those who are struggling and want to switch to a school in The Crossing network.

Curt Merlau, who helps lead community and school development for the network in central Indiana, said at the hearing that about 189 kids on average enroll in The Crossing’s schools after Sept. 1. The Crossing’s unique funding program allows it to partner with public school districts to help pay for students who switch from a district school to one of the Crossing’s campuses.

“Throughout the year … unlike our traditional school counterparts, we see enrollment increasing,” Merlau said.

But if students aren’t coming from a public school, or the student’s home district doesn’t have a partnership with The Crossing, this bill would make it easier for those students who switch mid-year to receive a voucher.

Critics of the bill, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association, have called it the biggest voucher expansion since the option was first made available in 2011.

But supporters, including education reform lobbying group Hoosiers for Quality Education, argue that vouchers are a tool that give kids a chance at the kind of education their families decide is best. The group posted a call-to-action on its website, that so far has led to 450 people reaching out to Ritz in response, said Erin Sweitzer, HQE’s spokeswoman.

“It’s a huge disappointment to hear that Superintendent Ritz is calling for a pause on the expansion of school vouchers,” Sweitzer said. “This is simply a common-sense policy revision that is in the best interest of our students. In fact, many legislators thought this was already happening based on the fact that we already have two count days (fall and spring semester) for public schools.”

The Legislative Services Agency estimated that if 1,000 extra students applied for vouchers for the spring semester in 2018, it could cost the state an additional $2.1 million. In 2016, almost 33,000 students received vouchers that amounted to about $4,132 per student per year.

At the Senate Hearing, Indiana Department of Education lobbyist John Barnes said more study is needed, especially of costs, before the state decides to move ahead with the bill.

“We believe that, simply put, this is not the time for expansion,” Barnes said. “(Indiana needs to) take time to examine the impacts of vouchers before we proliferate programs.”

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.