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.

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.