Vouching for Indiana

How vouchers transformed Indiana: Private schools now live or die by test scores, too

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy Middle School take the same standardized test as their peers at public schools.

When Indiana gave out school ratings last fall, Central Christian Academy’s board called an emergency meeting.

The school had gotten another D, and once again it would not be able to receive new vouchers, the public money that Indiana gives many families to help pay private school tuition.

With Central Christian cut off from hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid, board members contemplated closing the school.

Losing voucher dollars was “catastrophic,” said David Sexauer, who served on the board before taking over as head of school this year. “If it wasn’t for the fact that the church was willing to step in and help us kind of keep going, we would’ve had to close our doors.”

Ultimately, Central Christian Academy had its grade revised upward to an A because of changes to the way Indiana evaluates schools and its own improved passing rate on state tests. Now, instead of closing down, the school is hoping another round of solid scores this year will allow it to begin accepting vouchers again.

“It was like a roller coaster,” said Principal Melanie Sims.

Central Christian’s experience reflects a defining feature of Indiana’s school voucher program: Private schools can live or die by test scores the way that public schools often do, in an arrangement that divides school-choice advocates.

In the five years since Indiana began offering vouchers, the program has grown into one of the largest in the nation, and about $146 million in public funding was funneled to Indiana private schools through vouchers this year. But that money comes with strings attached, and low test scores have cost 16 schools the right to accept new vouchers. At least three have closed.

“I can’t think of any way you could make the program more accountable,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-voucher Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Indiana’s accountability requirements, he said, are at the “far end of the spectrum.”

Most states with voucher programs impose regulations on private schools that accept the public funds, but those guidelines vary widely. Some programs have health and safety requirements, in Florida new schools must show proof of financial stability, and in Louisiana schools are not allowed to use selective admission for students receiving vouchers.

But the question that generates the most controversy is whether and how voucher-funded schools should be held accountable for helping students learn.

Many voucher advocates — including American Federation for Children, the pro-voucher advocacy group U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos headed before joining the Trump administration — say they’re open to seeing students who use vouchers take tests, but don’t push for individual schools’ scores to be provided to anyone but parents and academic researchers. That’s the course that North Carolina has so far taken and that the federal government charted for the Washington, D.C. voucher program.

Other states have chosen to have voucher students take state exams to allow for comparisons between private and public schools. Some of them even penalize schools whose voucher students’ scores are low.

Indiana goes a step further: It not only requires students who are receiving vouchers to take state tests, it also requires private schools to test students who are not receiving state aid. Those test results, and other measures like graduation rates, are used to assess private schools with the same yardstick as charter and traditional public schools — A-F grades from the Indiana Department of Education. When schools have chronically low grades, the state sanctions them by reducing their access to vouchers.

Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat
Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

So why did Indiana — which has embraced so many elements of the school choice agenda, including charter schools, open enrollment across district lines and vouchers — come to accept this requirement?

One explanation is that the state’s voucher program was born at a time of peak accountability fervor in Indiana. Former-Gov. Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett were pushing for dramatic changes in education policy, including a new focus on punishing public schools with chronically low test scores.

The other answer: sports and the other benefits for private schools that were already contingent upon state testing in Indiana.

Many private schools were already taking state tests and getting letter grades before lawmakers rolled out the voucher program in order to get state accreditation — a badge of approval. Some Indiana schools were eager for state accreditation because it was a prerequisite for them to participate in the state’s high school sports association, said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, which represents private schools across the state.

But mainly, state accreditation was a way for private schools — including many Catholic and Lutheran schools — to show parents they were on par with public alternatives and get access to state grants, Elcesser said.

“For those schools, it was a very easy lift coming into the voucher program,” he said, “because most of the requirements they were already meeting.”

The unusual reality in Indiana before vouchers, with many private school students already taking state tests, allowed lawmakers to easily decide the crucial question of what to do about testing in private schools. But nationally, it’s a question that has ignited vigorous debate among voucher advocates and private school leaders.

Private schools often choose to administer a national standardized test in order to give parents more information on how their children are doing. Joe McTighe of the Council for American Private Education, a national umbrella group, said he’s comfortable with having that be required in exchange for getting public funds, but not with requiring private schools to administer state tests.

“We prefer a really light touch when it comes to accountability,” McTighe said.

Voucher advocates often argue that private schools don’t need to be measured with state tests because there is another form of accountability: parent choice.

That’s what Jay Greene argues. Greene, who heads the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, has written that test scores don’t capture long-term benefits from schools like graduation rates and earning potential. And they don’t measure important issues like school culture.

Parents have “a lot more information on average than do well-meaning but distant bureaucrats,” Greene said. “I’m not saying that this is scientific, but the science is even cruder than the kind of information that parents have.”

But many school choice advocates say parent judgments alone aren’t enough to ensure quality. That includes Sexauer of Central Christian, who says he still supports accountability measures for voucher-funded schools even after watching his school come near to closing.

“Parents don’t know everything,” Sexauer said. “Parents are not professional educators. Parents don’t ask the same kinds of questions that the department of education is going to ask.”

When taxpayer dollars are on the line, the state should do its best to ensure those schools are teaching students, said Fordham’s Petrilli.

“If we have data — especially some kind of growth data — and it shows that kids are not learning anything in that school year after year, I think that is clearly a waste of taxpayer funds,” Petrilli said. “There’s an appropriate government role in … saying, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a handful of schools that are so low-performing that we’re not going to allow them to be a part of the program.'”

Making sure vouchers don’t allow students to end up where they learn less: that’s the reason for Indiana’s strict accountability rules. But Central Christian’s experience illustrates the challenge that can pose for schools, too.

Vouchers themselves were a boon for the school, which had been shrinking as congregants from the affiliated church migrated to the suburbs. The state funding attracted low-income families from the neighborhood, and enrollment at the tiny school swelled. At its peak, more than 60 percent of students received state aid.

Many of those students were less prepared than past students had been — and less likely to post high test scores, Sexauer said. “We weren’t used to that.”

Meanwhile, Indiana has spent years grappling with changing standards, tests and accountability systems. That means the academic success of private schools, like public schools, is being judged by a set of particularly controversial and imperfect measures.

Indiana’s policies actually give private schools an even shorter and stricter timeline to improve than public schools face. If a private school gets a D or F grade from the state for two consecutive years, it is no longer eligible to receive vouchers for new students.

That’s what brought Central Christian to the brink of closing. But the school is on track to get new vouchers again. Its score jumped when the state changed how it measures schools to give them more credit for “student growth.” Now, even if children are not passing the state test, schools can earn high marks if their students see their scores rise over time. Central Christian officials say the change helped a lot.

Even before the grading shift, the school made changes that advocates of strong accountability could tout as a success — and a few that advocates for an unfettered school-choice marketplace see as worrying.

The prospect of losing state funding meant that Central Christian leaders went all in on a plan to improve teaching and test scores and to do a better job with students who came in behind. They brought in an outside consultant who helped revamp their instruction, building in more regular teacher training and adding more tests to see what students were learning throughout the year.

And they started following the state’s blueprint for what students should learn, and when. Before Central Christian started taking vouchers, Sims said she was a bit “oblivious” to state standards or tests. But now school leaders use Indiana’s standards to make sure that students on are track to know material by testing time.

For some choice advocates, that illustrates what’s wrong with Indiana’s strict accountability system. One reason why McTighe criticizes mandated state testing for private schools is because it pressures private schools to follow state standards, teaching the same material in the same order as public schools.

“If every school is the same, there is no choice,” McTighe said. “We have replaced genuine school choice with kind of an appearance of school choice.”

Vouching for Indiana

The International School joins Indiana’s voucher program, an unusual move for a secular school

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A highly regarded Indianapolis private school will join Indiana’s growing voucher program this fall.

The International School will be a rare example of a secular school accepting state money to help families pay high school tuition.

As Chalkbeat reported, just seven of the 313 schools that participated in the program last year were secular. And few elite schools accepted vouchers, which don’t go very far toward paying tuition bills that can be close to $20,000 per year.

The International School offers the International Baccalaureate program and language immersion in Spanish, French and Mandarin. Founded in 1994, the school is popular among affluent foreign parents who come to Indianapolis for work, and it has students and staff representing more than 40 nationalities.

The school joined the voucher program this year in part to signal the school’s support for economic diversity, said upper school admissions director Natalie Wolfe.

“We value diversity, and diversity isn’t always the color of our skin,” she said. “This is just one other avenue … to help us open the doors to some students who may have not had us on their radar before.”

The school is going slowly, however. Although it serves students from preschool through 12th grade, in this first year, just the high school will participate. Elementary and middle school students won’t be able to use state scholarships.

Because only the high school is accepting vouchers, the administration is largely sidestepping one of the most contentious pieces of the voucher program: The requirement that students take state tests. High schoolers will take a state exam, but elementary and middle students won’t have to take the state ISTEP test.

Some advocates worry that forcing private schools to administer state tests discourages them from joining the program, but Wolfe said that wasn’t a factor for the International School.

“We’re not concerned about ISTEP,” she said. “But we just want to test the waters.”

Even with the help of vouchers, the school may still be out of reach for families. Because tuition at the high school is $19,550 per year, state vouchers, which average about $4,258, will only pay a fraction of the cost. The school offers financial aid, but Wolfe said that scholarships are limited because it has a relatively small endowment.

It’s unclear how many families at the school will qualify for the state program. In order to be eligible for any state aid, a family of four must have an income below $89,910. The most common proxy for whether schools serve low-income children is the number of students who are poor enough qualify for subsidized meals. But the International School does not have records because it does not participate in the federal program.

But Wolfe hopes that joining the voucher program will help attract families by showing them there is financial help.

“We don’t want to seem we have any barriers,” she said. “We don’t want for a financial barrier to keep people from looking at this as an option.”

Vouching for Indiana

Almost all the private schools getting vouchers in Indiana are religious. Here’s how one school ended up bucking the trend

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Myra made a doll dress during a sewing class at the School for Community Learning, one of just 7 secular schools receiving vouchers from the state in 2017.

Seven-year-old Fallon breathed a sigh of frustration.

Her classmate, 11-year-old Myra, looked across the small round table where they were working. Fallon, sewing a pin cushion, was bent over her needle, struggling to slip thread through its eye.

“Here’s a tip,” said Myra. “You see how this is frayed at the end? … You’ve got to ever-so-carefully snip that frayed edge.”

Fallon and Myra are students at the School for Community Learning, a progressive private school on the north side of Indianapolis, where kids not only take math and reading but also study less conventional topics like sewing, birding and Hogwarts — classes that bring together children from kindergarten through middle school.

The School for Community Learning is unusual among Indiana private schools for not having a religious focus: More than 90 percent of the state’s private schools are religious, compared to 68 percent on average in the U.S.

But even within that small group, it’s notable as one of just seven non-religious private schools participating in Indiana’s expansive school voucher program this year.

Voucher advocates, including current U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, say they want families to be able to choose from a diverse marketplace of schools. But Indiana’s complicated school choice system offers little incentive for secular schools to take vouchers — leaving largely religious Christian schools benefiting from the state funds.

It works like this: Schools that want to serve poor students but don’t have a religious mission can open as charter schools — and bring in thousands of dollars more per student from the state.

Private schools that are not focused on serving poor students often charge upwards of $20,000 a year, more than four times the average voucher amount, and usually have their own scholarships to hand out.

And private schools with highly unusual approaches might not want to accept the stringent testing requirements that Indiana places on voucher schools.

The result: Of the 313 schools across Indiana that received vouchers this year, 306 are either part of a religious network, such as a Catholic diocese; have overtly religious names; or proclaim their faith on their websites, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. (Indiana doesn’t collect data on whether schools in the voucher program are religious.)

Of the seven voucher-funded schools that appear to be secular, three educate children who’ve struggled in other schools or have specific needs, such as dyslexia. That leaves just four secular private schools that serve typical students.

One of them is the School for Community Learning, whose unusual history offers insights into why there aren’t more schools like it taking vouchers in Indiana.

The school was born from the ashes of a charter school, the Project School, that the Indianapolis mayor’s office closed abruptly five years ago because of financial issues and low test scores. It was July, just weeks before the school year started, and teachers and parents had no idea where to turn.

A handful of teachers and about 25 families decided to start again without the backing of a charter authorizer, opening a private school with a focus on project-based learning. They had no campus, and no idea where they would get money. Parents paid whatever tuition they could afford and teachers barely earned anything, said Megan Howey Hughes, the director of the school.

“Parents also came in and they were the janitors,” she said. “If they couldn’t pay tuition, they did other work.”

After that first, cash-strapped, unsustainable year, everything changed: The school became eligible for the state’s vast new voucher program, and state funds started flowing. (Because of a quirk in Indiana policy, schools were required to operate for a year before receiving vouchers. That changed in recent weeks, when Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill that allows new schools to receive vouchers immediately.)

Most people starting non-religious schools don’t grapple with these intricacies. Instead, they’ve gone first to starting a charter school, which brings more state funds, and faster. Thirty-six new charter schools serving traditional-age students have opened in the last five years, according to state data.

In addition to getting more money per student from the state, being a charter school means there’s no perception that tuition could be a barrier. That’s a boon for schools trying to attract low-income parents.

“It would be great to be open to all children for free. That would be terrific,” said Patricia Wildhack, the school leader at School for Community Learning.

But the founders of the school passed up that extra money because they had such a bad experience with their prior charter school. They didn’t want to be under the control of an authorizer.

As a private school, “We get to make decisions from the board level down to the classroom level in a way that allows us even more flexibility,” Hughes said. “We are just us.”

This year, nearly 86 percent of the 70 students at the School for Community Learning are receiving state aid to help their families pay tuition, one of the highest rates in Indiana.

“We didn’t want to give up our belief that our school should be accessible to all students regardless of family income,” Hughes said. “We’re working really hard … to be a private school that’s financially accessible.”


PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the School for Community Learning take elective classes with children of any age.

Some private schools are able to make themselves accessible to at least some poor families in other ways — usually by providing scholarships on their own, as the elite Park Tudor School in Indianapolis does. Vouchers would alleviate some of the cost, but at an average of $4,258 per student, would leave a lot to be covered at schools that cost close to $20,000 a year — and come with strings that the schools don’t want.

Plus, some schools are reluctant to welcome low-income students who might not be academically prepared, said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute.

“If you’ve got people spending a lot of money to send their kids to this school, and then all of a sudden you open the doors to kids who are paying nothing,” Petrilli said. “That could be challenging, depending on the school community.”

Voucher advocates say it’s not ideal when thriving private schools with strong academic records steer clear of voucher programs. Jay Greene of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas said regulations that discourage the schools from joining in could result in students going to lower-quality schools.

“The more you drive quality private schools out of the program,” he said, “the worse the results are going to be.”

Among the rules that could dissuade schools from participating, according to Greene: testing requirements. Indiana’s voucher program has some of the strictest testing rules in the country, requiring schools to administer the state exam not only to students using vouchers but to all students. Low scores could cost the schools the right to state funds.

At the School for Community Learning, preparing kids for the state test can be a burden, said Wildhack. Teachers have to make sure their curricula follow the order outlined in the state standards, and it makes it harder to find time for projects.

If someone suddenly gave the school a few million dollars, they might choose to leave the voucher program. But for now, vouchers are “totally worth it,” Wildhack said.

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

For some religious schools with a history of serving low and middle-income students, vouchers also help fill crucial budget gaps — and seats — as they face stiff competition from charter, magnet and public schools that don’t cost parents. As in Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, vouchers in Indiana have helped prop up struggling urban Catholic schools.

One reason vouchers are such a contentious political issue is their entwined relationship with religion. DeVos, a longtime school choice advocate, has called attention to this relationship by visiting several Christian schools that benefit from public money since becoming education secretary.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that vouchers don’t violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state because parents may choose where to use the tuition dollars they receive.

The executive director of Indiana’s private school association said the dearth of secular private schools in the state’s voucher program should not be seen as alarming.

After all, said John Elcesser of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, from neighborhood public schools, to magnet and charter schools, families have lots of secular options.

“You have to kind of look at the big picture when you look at what are the options available to families,” Elcesser said.

The School for Community Learning is in many ways very different from the religious schools that have benefitted most often from vouchers, prioritizing project-based learning rather than prayer. But there are characteristics that make it similar: It was built on around shared values, from a commitment to social and environmental justice to dedication to the community.

It’s been sustained because, like a lot of religious schools, parents and staff are willing to make sacrifices to support those values, Hughes said.

“It’s different enough for them that they are willing to make the drive or pay the money or kind of do what it takes to have their child in this safe space of learning.”