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 accepts taxpayer funded vouchers. All students at the private school must take Indiana's state tests. Whether Tennessee should have a similar requirement in its voucher proposal is up for debate.

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.

charter politics

Betsy DeVos to charter school leaders: Your schools ‘are not the one cure-all’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In an address to charter school advocates, leaders, and teachers in Washington D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared to chide charter supporters who oppose her push to expand private school choice.

She also criticized rules designed to ensure charter quality, but that — in her telling — had turned into red tape, stifling innovation.

“Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education,” she said at the conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as a cure-all in education.”

Her remarks hinted at growing divides within the school choice movement. Charter school advocates in New York, California, and Denver have been cool to the idea of expanding vouchers. The broader group has splintered on other issues, too: accountability for charter schools, for-profit charters, President Trump’s budget, and issues beyond education.

On the question of how to measure school quality, DeVos continued to send mixed messages. On the one hand, she praised the National Alliance for having “proven that quality and choice can coexist.” On the other hand, she criticized efforts to ensure that schools are high-quality through “500-page charter school applications.”

This touches on a longstanding debate about how much regulation charter schools need — and who should provide it.

Research released earlier this week showed that there is significant variation in test score performance among different charter school networks, and that for-profit and virtual schools lag behind. DeVos has supported both types of schools.

“A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right,” said DeVos. “It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.”

Other research has found that when charter schools are closed because of poor performance, student achievement increases. Yet market-oriented choice advocates often suggest that parents are in the best position to decide which school is a good fit for their child, and test scores shouldn’t be the sole basis for those decisions.

When asked during a brief question and answer session with Derrell Bradford — a supporter of school choice from the group 50CAN — where she stood, DeVos did not offer a specific answer.

“Our focus should be on not choice for choice’s sake, but choice because parents are demanding something different for their children,” she said. “For every year that they don’t have that opportunity, their child is missing out.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president for the National Alliance, said that if a charter school is not meeting academic performance goals, “it should absolutely close,” though emphasized that the process should be done carefully with the needs of parents in mind.

She sees DeVos’s position as slightly different than her group’s.

“My sense is she’s probably a little more on the ‘choice for choice’ [side] than the Alliance is,” Wilkins told Chalkbeat.

Greg Richmond, the head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a prominent advocate for holding charter schools accountable for their academic results, said in an interview that he wasn’t sure of DeVos’s position on the topic.

“Clearly we’re in the robust accountability camp,” he said in an interview. But of DeVos, “I haven’t figured [DeVos] out yet.”

In her speech, DeVos also referenced a recent blog post by Rick Hess, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, whom she called a friend. “Many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats – a new education establishment,” she said.

Although she spoke passionately about helping low-income students escape struggling schools, DeVos only briefly mentioned President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, the brunt of which critics say would fall on poor students and their families.

“While some of you have criticized the President’s budget – which you have every right to do – it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States,” DeVos said. “It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.”

Some charter school teachers say the budget would hurt their students.

“It’s really disturbing that the same people she’s claiming she wants to help and be an advocate for are the one’s that she’s hurting,” said Carlene Carpenter, a charter school teacher in Chicago and a member of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re hearing one thing, but in actuality what’s really happening with these budget cuts is the after-school programs are being eliminated.”

The cuts are still a proposal, and conventional wisdom in D.C. is that the plan has no shot at getting through Congress.

DeVos reiterated her view that money is not the key to improving schools, though recent research suggests more resources do in fact help schools get better. She also agreed with the idea that charter schools are not equitably funded.

DeVos’s remarks come as the National Alliance toes a careful line. The group’s president, Nina Rees, addressed that head-on in remarks on Monday.

“Let me tackle the big elephant in the room,” she said. “Donald Trump.”

“We can disagree with President Trump and disagree loudly when we believe it’s the right thing to do, but to ignore the impact of a big increase in funding at the federal level would be irresponsible,” Rees said. “It would put the interest of adults and political activists ahead of the needs of our schools.”

Rees has faced pressure from some charter school leaders after a number of them wrote an op-ed in USA Today criticizing the Trump budget. The National Alliance initially offered unmitigated praise for the proposal, though has since criticized aspects of it.

“Accepting the president’s agenda on charter schools doesn’t connect us to his full agenda,” Rees said.

a charter divide

Why for-profit charter schools are going out of style with some education reform leaders

Marshall Tuck is the last person you would expect to say it’s time to limit charter schools.

Tuck, a Democratic candidate for California schools superintendent, once oversaw a network of charter schools in Los Angeles and was heavily backed by the state’s charter lobby when he ran for (and narrowly lost) the post in 2014.

That’s why it’s surprising that one of Tuck’s first major policy announcements in his latest bid was a push to ban for-profit charter schools in California, a top priority of teachers unions.

“Educators — whether at district or charter public schools — can agree: public schools must serve students, not shareholders,” Tuck wrote. “Profit has no place in our public schools, and I urge politicians in Sacramento to make that the law.”

This fresh hostility toward for-profit charter schools extends beyond California. Across the country, more left-of-center charter school advocates are distancing themselves from for-profit charter schools. Some want to prohibit them outright.

Jeff Henig, a Columbia professor, sees this as a symptom of a broader rift, driven in part by the election of Donald Trump and appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has backed private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

“What may account for why this is becoming more publicly talked about is this re-opening what was always a strange-bedfellow coalition,” he said. “That cleavage is widening now, with the for-profits seeing a chance under Trump and DeVos to jump back ahead in the game and the nonprofit, progressive group worrying that they’ll be tarred by the bad-apple stories.”

In most places, charter schools are required to be run by nonprofit boards, but operations and management can be turned over to for-profit companies, often known as education-management organizations or EMOs, though some states bar this practice. As of 2014, about one in five charter students attended a school run for profit.

For years, the charter school movement was characterized by a relatively amicable alliance between progressive and conservative education reformers, with disagreements about vouchers and for-profit charters largely playing out behind the scenes.

“Those folks for many years traveled together because their main battle was against the unions and traditional public schools, and the stickiness of the status quo,” Henig said. “But there never was a meeting of the minds really among all of the charter proponents.”

For progressive charter advocates, keeping an arm’s length from for-profit charter schools may be smart politics.

“[California] is a very blue state, and an anti-for-profit position is almost certainly a majority or strong plurality opinion,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, about Tuck specifically. “Especially given current national politics and the views of Betsy DeVos, this position allows him to separate himself from unpopular folks in Washington.”

Nick Melvoin, a successful candidate for L.A. school board who was endorsed by pro-charter groups, joined Tuck’s push. “We need to pass this legislation banning for-profit schools to combat the radical anti-public education agenda of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump,” he wrote.

Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform told Chalkbeat in a recent interview, “We’re categorically opposed to for-profit providers running schools.”

John King, the former secretary of education and founder of a charter school in Boston, expressed a similar view.

“I would distinguish between the role that high-performing public charters can play in a strong public education system as opposed to vouchers and for-profit charters. I believe public dollars should go to public schools with public accountability,” King, who is currently president and CEO of EdTrust, told Chalkbeat.

“In New York, when we raised the charter cap in 2010 we banned new for-profit charters,” he added. “That seemed right to me. I would be fine with other states taking a similar approach.”

To those who favor a free-market approach, including many advocates of school vouchers, the criticism of for-profit schools is a mistake that could limit options for students who need them.

“I’m from the Malcolm X school — by any means necessary,” said Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school choice group that Betsy DeVos used to lead. “I don’t rule out any learning modality that can help a kid.” (Chavous is on the board of K12, a for-profit virtual school operator.)

DeVos echoed that view last week in testimony before the U.S. Senate.

“Whether it’s a for-profit managed institution or a not-for-profit, if students are achieving and parents are making those choices on behalf of their children, I think those are the better measures to be oriented around,” DeVos said.

So how strong is the case against for-profit charters?

On one hand, studies comparing for-profit schools to nonprofits and traditional public schools in the same area don’t find consistent differences in performance, as measured by test scores. Nationally, as well as in Florida and Michigan, for-profit charter schools perform comparably or even a bit better.

For-profit charters do spend significantly more on administrative costs — and less on classroom instruction — than nonprofits according to one recent study, consistent with concerns about profiteering. But the authors said there is little evidence that those schools were less effective or efficient as a result.

On the other hand, the largely for-profit sector of virtual charter operators have harmed student achievement — often dramatically, according to multiple studies. They have also proven politically influential, in a way that critics say helps keep struggling schools open.

An extensive analysis of charter schools in North Carolina found that the practice of contracting management out to for-profit companies likely violates the law. The nonprofit KIPP charter schools in the state, by contrast, had governance practices that were “thorough, correct, and in compliance.”

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor and frequent charter school critic who has examined financial malfeasance in the sector, said the distinctions between the sectors weren’t always clear.

There are “bad actors on both sides,” he said, “but most good actors [are] on [the] nonprofit side.”