What We’re Talking About Regarding Vouchers

Last tax year, Indiana went past go with a tax surplus. The state is now set to collect a $1.5 billion surplus, part of which legislators earmarked for the teacher retirement fund, a blessing. Yet it hardly offsets educators’ concerns about an enormous expansion of the voucher program. Once purported to help low-income families with students in “under-performing” schools find better educational options, this expansion signals that lobbyists have multifarious intentions. They are dividing and conquering, preying upon unified approaches that serve the greater good.

This year, Indiana joined five other states in expanding vouchers, all while setting aside previous assertions that vouchers serve the underprivileged. Now they allow funding to follow the students of upper middle class, further pressing schools and educators to cater to the whims of the market, pinching off the commitment to each student.

What we were always talking about with vouchers wasn’t about opportunity for at-risk communities. It has been something else. For some, it represented the implementation of Milton Friedman’s economic vision – competition produces inherently better results. Except what is “better”? Better is a vague word. An undefined superlative. Some have played a long game, aiming ultimately for privatization of education. At times, it goes back to libertarian, small government aspirations. Other times, it conjures conspiracy fears of a nanny state. Who doesn’t love speculative fiction that helps us ask hard questions – a la Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? But speculative fiction should not be conflated with reality. It’s a checkpoint, not a call to action about some culture war.

Every school day, public school teachers – many of whom you worship next to at church – coach, sit with students during lunch hour, attend IEP meetings, listen to emotional burdens or household issues and mentor. They operate in schools that are short-staffed. They are consistently expected by legislators and communities to be on the front lines of suicide prevention, housing and food insecurity, and social-emotional trauma the kids bring from home. They need trained social workers, special education teachers, vocational teachers, music and arts teachers, choir and theater directors and minority representation in each area.

There are only so many hours in a day, so a public school teacher chooses. Should they call home to praise or troubleshoot a situation with a student who needs more emotional support and better school-home collaboration? Should they conference more to provide personal and caring feedback on projects, writing or complex mathematical problems? Should they spend evening hours sorting huge classes into smaller groups so they can individuate levels of learning for students? Who will monitor all those small groups? What a luxury to have aides to balance the workload. God forbid smaller class sizes.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education Misses The Mark

This voucher expansion is accommodating the people with the means to lobby. They have the time and funds. Low-income parents trying to juggle acute concerns – the car problems, a lack of health insurance and childcare – making it hard to write letters, call, or show up at the statehouse or a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. “talk session” with a local legislator. No factory or kid accommodates that. Those who bend the ears of legislators have margin. And presently, those folks don’t ascribe to the ethos of Spock from Star Trek III The Wrath of Khan where the goal is “for the good of the many, not of the one.”

Consider the numbers. According to the Indiana Capital Chronicle, “The state spent $311.8 million on the program in the 2022-23 school year — 29 percent more than the year prior.” Now that there’s broad eligibility for vouchers, the projected number of students who use the program is 95,000 students by 2025, “doubling the state money spent on the Choice Scholarships, costing taxpayers $1.1 billion over the next two years.” Fewer low-income students are likely to be served. “In 2022-23, only 28.1 percent of voucher households had an income below $50,000, compared to 37.4 percent in the 2021-22 school year. Instead, most voucher recipient households were more likely to make over $100,000 than under $50,000.”

In 2018, the Center for American Progress reported on studies of states, including Indiana, where vouchers were implemented under the guise of improving educational outcomes for students. In the study of only Indiana students, researchers “examined the outcomes of students using vouchers for two, three, or four years between the 2011-12 and 2014-15 school years. At the time of the report, the Indiana study has the largest sample size – and the largest voucher program.” More than 34,000 Hoosier students received vouchers in the 2016-17 school year. The study found that students who used vouchers did not see academic gains in their new schools and that they performed worse, on average, than their matched peers in the public schools. Students with disabilities did profoundly worse.

Because they are schools of choice, private schools, homeschools and some charter schools are not obligated to serve all students. They can accept students with disabilities and needs without providing services, or they can turn those students away. When students are turned back to their local public school, that school is required by law to provide the full array of services the child needs. It’s costly, but a worthwhile endeavor to educate every student.

While some state legislators supported voucher expansion to create more competition, purportedly to spur public schools to improve, the contingency who want a privatized education system haven’t offered evidence that the market will improve service equitably for all students.

This is why the League of Women Voters here and incidentally in other states such as South Carolina (another expansion state) stand against the voucher expansion. Laws can be repealed, and likely this one, which experiments with Indiana’s fiscal responsibility and educational quality should be.

– The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.