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 schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.