Betsy DeVos

Six things to know about Indiana’s school voucher program, a model Betsy DeVos could support

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.

Rally

This Tennessee teacher spoke at a rally in support of trans students. Here’s what he wants lawmakers to know.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
More than 100 protestors attended a rally in support of the state's transgender students at the state Capitol.

Months after he began teaching at Tennessee’s second-largest high school, Westlee Walker started a student group for LGBTQ students and their allies in response to a string of three student suicides.

“Students were coming to me, and they needed a safe space (to talk),” said Walker, in his second year of teaching at Nashville’s McGavock High School. “It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. … If a student doesn’t feel safe, they will not be able to learn.”

Walker joined more than 100 other Tennesseans Friday at a rally at the state Capitol in support of the state’s trans students. The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, with students from across the state, organized the rally over a decision by President Trump’s administration to pull protections that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon have filed a bill that would limit Tennessee transgender students to using the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Asked Monday about their proposal, Beavers declined to comment, and Pody did not immediately respond. However, some other state leaders have said such a bill is unnecessary, and that decisions about bathrooms should be made at the local level.

Several Tennessee students, parents and educators, including Walker, spoke at the rally. Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Nashville Democrats, also spoke, as did Nashville councilman Brett Withers.

Walker said he was glad to see state legislators at the event, and he extended an open for them to visit his class. He also extended the invitation to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

“Before I started teaching, I kind of assumed everyone had the same upbringing I did,” said Walker, who teaches agriculture science. “That’s just not the case. Students come from all different walks of life, not just LGBT students. I have students who are immigrants; I have students who are refugees. If I can just have one lawmaker sit in my class and hear the stories these kids are living at 14, 15 years old, it would completely change their perspective.”

Walker said that laws targeting any group of his students keep him from doing his job.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville teacher Westlee Walker speaks in support of his transgender students at a rally last Friday by the state Capitol in Nashville.

“If I cannot create that environment in my building, where a student who feels like they are alienated doesn’t feel safe, then I am failing as a teacher at a very basic level,” he said.

In light of the Trump administration’s decision, Director Shawn Joseph issued a statement reaffirming Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ policies aimed at protecting students and employees who say their gender identities are different from the ones on their birth certificates.

Shelby County Schools officials said in an emailed statement on Monday that district officials “will continue to closely follow the development of the law on this subject and await guidance from the State’s General Assembly and Board of Education before issuing a formal opinion about whether changes should be made to the District’s current practices.”

Until then, the statement continues, “Shelby County Schools will continue working with families individually to ensure all of our students’ educational needs are properly addressed.”

Week In Review

Betsy DeVos’s second week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

PHOTO: Department of Education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s second full week on the job was characterized by mixed messages.

She made the department’s first big policy shift, but might not have wanted to. She criticized teachers and said they were doing a great job. And some education leaders criticized her policies while at the same offering to work with her.

It’s a lot of news, and we’re here to help you keep up. Some highlights:

She a lost an internal battle to keep Obama-era protections for transgender students — though it also became a PR win. Accounts of the fight come from the New York Times, which said DeVos couldn’t outmaneuver Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who wanted to kill the old guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. That prompted some headlines like this one, from Quartz: “Betsy DeVos—of all people—is fighting Donald Trump to protect transgender students.”

One interpretation, courtesy of Justin Cohen: “The more cynical way to view this story, is that the administration was always going to rescind this guidance, and that letting DeVos disagree publicly with Jeff Sessions would give her a temporary, harmless PR coup after a bruising confirmation process.” If that’s true, “Outside political pressure matters, and in this case, that pressure might have forced the hand of a cabinet secretary.”

The New Yorker’s take: “But trying to do something good—if that is, indeed, what DeVos tried to do—deserves no praise when the end result is to be complicit in something bad.”

We’re seeing the influence of others in Trump’s inner circle. Sessions is one — and Education Week explains that his influence over the transgender guidance led to some hand-wringing about whether Democrats should have directed more of their anti-DeVos fervor at the attorney general during his confirmation fight.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart News, described Trump’s agenda in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference as having three parts: national security, economic nationalism, and the “destruction of the administrative state.” Trump’s Cabinet nominees “were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” he said. And in her own on-stage interview at CPAC, DeVos said she thinks the federal government should have “as light a touch as possible” on education.

Some education leaders say they are open to working with her. Two leading education officials say they don’t support DeVos’s outlook or policy priorities but will sit down with her anyway. Randi Weingarten, head of the country’s second largest teachers union, has committed to touring two schools with DeVos — one that she picks and one that DeVos chooses. “You have to talk, and you have to engage,” Weingarten told the New Republic.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña sounded a similar note this week: “I work with everyone,” she said. “I will have conversations with anyone and everyone to ensure that the work we’re doing here is being celebrated and recognized, and we’ll see what time will bring.”

And one notable leader who has offered public support for DeVos, Success Academy charter schools founder Eva Moskowitz, is facing forceful pushback from her own staffers, according to Politico.

That comes after DeVos got into trouble with teachers — then tried to mitigate the damage. DeVos’s comments criticizing teachers at the first public school she visited for being in “receive mode” spread via social media last weekend, drawing sharp criticism from the school itself.

DeVos responded, “Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.”

But the episode appeared to cut off goodwill from one education leader: Kaya Henderson, the former head of D.C.’s public schools. Her response on Twitter started with, “Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

DeVos’s popularity is low but on the rise. A poll found that public opinion of DeVos is back to pre-confirmation hearing levels — with a third of Americans seeing her favorably. During the confirmation process, just 12 percent of Americans viewed her favorably, the same poll found.