By the numbers

Participation in Indiana’s 6-year-old voucher program is at a record high, but growth is slowing.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana’s sweeping voucher program appears to be reaching an equilibrium. The number of students using state subsidies to pay private school tuition grew at the lowest rate since the program began in 2011.

The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017. News of the program’s slowing growth comes as vouchers are gaining national attention: In an address to Congress last night, President Donald Trump called on lawmakers to fund school choice programs, including charter schools and vouchers, for “disadvantaged youth.”

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia offer some type of vouchers, but the program in Vice-President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana has received particular attention as a model for the nation, in part because it received support from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

In Indiana, growth has slowed dramatically since the early years of the voucher program. A newly released preliminary report from the Indiana Department of Education shows that 1,613 additional students received vouchers — an increase of less than 5 percent over last year.

That’s a sharp contrast with the initial growth in vouchers, when participation more than doubled for the first couple years. That early expansion was partially fueled by expanding eligibility to more families.

But it’s been a few years since the legislature last broadened eligibility for the subsidies, and the slowing growth of the program could suggest that either private schools are beginning to reach capacity or most of the eligible families that are interested in sending their children to private school are already participating.

To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year. For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year.

Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019 on vouchers due to higher anticipated participation.

Here are some other highlights from the report, which you can read in full here:

  • As in years past, the numbers of black students have decreased, falling slightly this year to 12.4 percent. The numbers of white, Hispanic and Asian students have increased, now at 60.2 percent, 19.3 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively.
  • More and more students who have never attended public school are also using vouchers — about 54.6 percent, up more than two percentage points from last year.
  • This year, more voucher students are coming from the suburbs (up slightly from 22.4 percent last year to 23.1 percent). While those coming from the city have fallen slightly, they still make up the largest share at 60.7 percent.
  • The number of students using vouchers and attending charter schools increased slightly this year, and the number of students in traditional public schools and non-voucher private school students dropped.
  • Three fewer schools are participating this year than last — over the past few years, the number has remained fairly consistent at about 315 schools.

Politics & Policy

Indianapolis school board members make an unusual school visit — halfway around the world

PHOTO: Courtsey: Kelly Bentley
Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.

When Indianapolis Public Schools board members visit schools, it’s usually a short trip across town. But the latest site visit took them a little farther afield — about 8,500 miles.

IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan and member Kelly Bentley traveled to Thailand earlier this month to visit a study abroad program that could soon be available to students in the district.

Thrival Academy, which is designed to give low-income high school students the chance to study and travel internationally, aims to launch as an IPS innovation school in 2018. If the Indianapolis school gets board approval, it will be the second Thrival site. This year, the group is piloting the program in partnership with Oakland Unified School District in California.

Indianapolis has a rapidly growing selection of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. With its study-abroad focused program, Thrival is one of the most unusual ideas put forward.

It’s so unusual that Bentley and Sullivan wanted to see the program in practice.

During a four-day visit, they stayed at the camp where Oakland students lived, visited sites where the teens did home stays, and learned about the academics that are offered during the three months that high schoolers in the program spend in South Asia. They also had the chance to talk with students from Oakland about their experience.

“These were kids that, some of them had never, ever been away from home,” Bentley said. “I think it is a life-changing experience for these kids.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.

The trip was paid for by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that partners with IPS to support innovation schools and that funds a fellowship that Thrival’s founder, Emma Hiza, won to start the school.

In addition to the board members, the Mind Trust sent the IPS chief of operations, and Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, had previously gone to scout the program. Other board members were also invited to go, but declined because the trip was on short notice, said Sullivan.

Almost as soon as Bentley and Sullivan shared photos and tidbits from the trip on Facebook, critics of the Mind Trust’s influence in Indianapolis schools began raising questions about the Thailand trip.

Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust said the group wanted board members to have a chance to see the program because it is so unusual — not in an effort to sway their votes.

“Because we are sending students halfway across the world,” he said, “we thought it would’ve been irresponsible for them not to go see it.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.

The camp did not charge Bentley and Sullivan for their stay, Hiza said, so the group’s main costs were their plane tickets.

But accepting an international trip to see a school they will eventually vote on could make it appear that the board members are not impartial, said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“I would just have advised them not to do it,” she said. “I’m not questioning anybody’s integrity. I’m not questioning anybody’s motivation. … It’s the perception.”

For their part, Bentley and Sullivan say they won’t make final decisions on whether to support the school until the details of the Indianapolis program are ironed out. But they now have a greater understanding of Thrival’s model.

The trip gave them insight into the program that it would’ve been hard to get without seeing it in practice, said Sullivan, such as how Thrival integrates academics into study abroad.

“It’s a really big jump for IPS to get involved in something like this,” she said. “Some of the questions I think that we had and will have were answered much better by actually seeing and meeting the students, the teachers, the people on the Thailand side.”

Story booth

A Detroit student speaks: Her charter school promised college tours and art classes. They didn’t exist.

Detroit high school senior Dannah Wilson says a charter school broke promises it made promises to her family.

When Dannah Wilson decided to enroll in a charter school on Detroit’s west side, her family was drawn by the promise of programs like college tours and art classes.

In reality, however, those programs didn’t exist.

“We were made promises by the administration that weren’t kept,” said Wilson, who is now a high school senior at another Detroit charter school.

But when parents and students tried to complain, they discovered that the college that authorized the school’s charter, Bay Mills Community College, was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a five-hour drive from Detroit.

Wilson had been the “poster child” for the school, she said, her face plastered on billboards and brochures for the school.

“I willingly gave,” she said. “But did not receive a quality education in return.”

Wilson discussed her challenges navigating Detroit schools in a story booth outside the School Days storytelling event at the Charles H. Wright Museum last month.

The event, cosponsored by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, featured Detroit parents, educators, and a student telling stories on stage about schools in Detroit.

The event also invited other Detroiters to share their stories in a booth set up by Chalkbeat and the Skillman Foundation. (Skillman also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Last week, we featured a teacher sharing the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class. This week, we’re featuring Wilson, who is part of a family whose children have collectively attended 22 different schools in Detroit in search of a quality education.

Watch Wilson’s story below, and if you have a story to tell about Detroit schools — or know someone who does — please let us know.