Tag Archives: vouchers

You Go, Dan Forestal!

A recent report in the Indianapolis Star just warmed the cockles of my heart. (And before you ask, no, I have no idea what “cockles” are.)

Here’s what made me smile:

With the Indiana General Assembly back in session, one state lawmaker says he still intends to introduce legislation that would block public dollars from going to private schools that engage in discriminatory hiring practices.

The proposal by Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis, comes in the wake of discrimination charges lobbed at Roncalli High School, a Catholic school overseen by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Forestal said he wants to see strings put on the state’s voucher program, which uses public dollars to offset to cost of tuition at Roncalli and other participating K-12 private schools.

I’ve written before about Indiana’s voucher program, which is by far the largest in the country, and the damage it is inflicting.  The funds supporting the program would otherwise go to Indiana’s chronically under-funded public schools; research confirms that the private schools participating in the voucher program have failed to improve the academic performance of the children attending them (that they would do so was the original justification for the program); and the program is a thinly-veiled constitutional “work-around” that permits tax dollars to flow to religious institutions. (Some 90% of participating private schools are religious.)

The bill that Representative Forestal proposes to introduce addresses another glaring defect of the voucher program: the lack of standards imposed on participating schools.

A colleague and I recently surveyed voucher programs operating around the U.S., in order to see whether any of those programs required participating schools to teach civics. You will probably not be surprised to learn that none did. I’m relatively confident that if we conducted a follow-up survey, we would be equally unable to find programs imposing non-discrimination requirements. Any nondiscrimination requirements, not just those protective of LGBTQ students and faculty.

There is something very disturbing about taking money away from our public schools and sending it to religious schools without attaching any meaningful conditions. Taxpayers may well be funding schools that teach creationism, that refuse to teach evolution, and that discriminate against students and faculty members who violate tenets of their theologies. (In Louisiana, schools participating in that state’s voucher program were found to be doing all of these things.)

Representative Forestal’s intended legislation was prompted by a widely-publicized incident at Roncalli High School (from which Forestal graduated). Roncalli is one of the largest recipients of vouchers in Indiana.

Two guidance counselors at the school have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after they said they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. The Archdiocese has denied these charges.

 Shelly Fitzgerald was suspended from her job in August after her marriage certificate was presented to school administration. Fitzgerald, who has worked at Roncalli for 15 years, has been in a same-sex relationship for 22 years. She and her wife, Victoria, were married four years ago.

Lynn Starkey has been in a civil union with her spouse since 2015 and worked at Roncalli for nearly 40 years.

The school and Archdiocese have said in public statements that employees must support the teachings of the Catholic Church, including marriage being “between a man and a woman.”

Religious exemptions to civil rights laws allow them to impose such rules–when they are spending their own money.

One of the most basic purposes of the Establishment Clause was to prevent tax dollars from supporting religion. That prohibition makes even more sense today. In a diverse country, taxpayers of various faiths and none should not be forced to support beliefs inimical to their own, and definitely should not see their tax dollars sent to institutions that turn around and discriminate against them.

Forestal said it best:“If you choose to discriminate, public dollars should not go to your school.”

Good luck, Representative Forestal!

 

 

 

Telling It Like It Is

What was that line from Jaws? It’s baaaack…

“It” in this case is the Indiana Legislature, which is beginning its “long” session. (I don’t know how other state’s lawmaking bodies work, but in Indiana, which has a two-year budget cycle, the session is longer the year the budget is considered.) When I last looked, over 300 bills had been filed by members of the State Senate, and 150 or so by members of the House. As you might imagine, a number of them won’t see the light of day–and most probably shouldn’t.

For that matter, Hoosiers would be better off if some of the bills that will survive quietly died. But that’s a post for another day…

Indiana’s teachers had hoped this year’s budget would include funding for a much-needed raise. That may still happen, and it clearly should, but several lawmakers have issued opinions to the effect that, yes, teachers should get raises, but the school corporations that employ them should just take the money for those raises from another part of the school budget.

This is totally unreasonable, of course, because most of those “other” funds are needed and/or legally earmarked for a variety of purposes, but Indiana’s legislators rarely allow their lack of understanding of the way things actually work get in the way of their opining.

In an op-ed for the Lafayette Journal and Courier, the Superintendent of the West Lafayette School System, Rocky Killion, responded. He began with the obvious:

This week the House Education Committee, on a partisan vote of 9-3, passed House Bill 1003.  House Bill 1003 affirms increasing teacher salaries but provides no additional funding to public schools to do so.  Instead, the GOP calls on public schools to spend differently…

What they do not seem to understand is that unless more revenue is provided, there will be less money to provide custodial, maintenance, secretarial, health, special education and other support services for students and teachers.

Then he turned the tables–very effectively.

If legislators are serious about increasing teachers’ salaries without increasing school funding, I would suggest the same to them, spend differently on public education.  Here are three ways to increase teacher salaries without increasing school funding:

Killion’s first suggestion was to quit spending over $100 million annually on standardized testing. As he quite correctly points out, standardized testing doesn’t improve student learning; what he doesn’t say–but many education scholars confirm–is that such testing distorts what happens in the classroom, because teachers feel impelled to spend more time on subjects that will be  tested than on subjects (like civics, for example) that won’t.

 A statistically sound approach for measuring student achievement and holding school corporations accountable for student learning is that of measuring student academic growth over time, which standardizing testing does not do.  Reallocate this resource to teacher salaries.

His second recommendation was similar:Quit spending over $10 million on IREAD-3 testing.

Teachers do not need this test to determine whether or not a student is reading at a third-grade level.  The best, most efficient way to find out if a third-grade student is reading at a third-grade level is by asking a third-grade teacher.  Reallocate this resource to teacher salaries.

I unequivocally endorse his third recommendation, which was to quit spending over $70 million on student vouchers, and reallocate those resources to teacher salaries.

Vouchers were Initially justified as a way to allow children to escape “failing” public schools, but 60% of Indiana’s vouchers are used by students who have never attended a public school.

What Killion was too “politically correct” to mention in his op-ed was that researchers have found no improvement in academic achievement by voucher students. (A couple of studies have found a decline, at least in math.) It has become quite clear that Indiana’s voucher program–the largest in the U.S.–is simply a way to take money from public education and give it to the religious schools that constitute over 90% of the schools accepting vouchers.

Voucher programs were a strategy devised to evade the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits tax support of religious institutions. The courts accepted the argument that the money was “really” going to the parents, and not to a parochial school. That it was always a specious argument has become glaringly obvious.

Indiana’s public school teachers ought not continue to be underpaid so that religious schools can suck at the public you-know-what.

 

Montana Is Right; Indiana Is Wrong

Montana’s Supreme Court recently struck down that state’s version of a school voucher program, ruling that it was unconstitutional under a provision of the state’s constitution.

As Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported,

The Montana Supreme Court delivered a win for church-state separation and public education last week when it struck downthe state’s private school voucher program.

Americans United, joined by other civil-rights organizations, had urged the court through a friend-of-the-court brief to prevent the voucher scheme – called a tuition tax credit program – from funding private, religious education. Our brief explained that the program violated the “no-aid” provision in Montana’s constitution, which protects residents’ religious freedom by ensuring taxpayer money isn’t used for religious purposes – including religious education.

The Montana Supreme Court agreed with us: “We ultimately conclude the Tax Credit Program aids sectarian schools in violation of Article X, Section 6, and that it is unconstitutional in all of its applications,” wrote the court majority.

“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said AU president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

The Indiana Constitution has a provision very similar to Montana’s. What we don’t have is a Supreme Court willing to uphold it.

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, and according to Chalkbeat, 306 of the 313 schools across Indiana that received vouchers this year are religious. When supporters of public education and civil liberties challenged Indiana’s program, citing our state’s constitutional bar on sending tax dollars to religious institutions of any sort, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to address the reality of the program, ruling that the funds were being sent to parents, not schools, and that it was thus the parents who were “choosing” to use them at religious schools. (Among other intellectually dishonest aspects of that analysis, the court conveniently ignored the fact that 90% of Indiana’s private schools are religious, a fact that rather obviously constrains that parental “choice.”)

There are numerous reasons to oppose school vouchers, and I’ve written about several: research rebuts claims that children attending these schools perform better than similar children in public schools; the program diverts money from already under-resourced public education; there is no requirement that voucher schools teach civics or comply with civil rights laws or refrain from discriminating against LGBTQ students or teachers. (Roncalli, anyone?) There is virtually no accountability.

Accountability has been cited as one of several differences between voucher schools and charter schools. Charters are public schools, they must obey the Constitution, and they can be closed if they fail to perform adequately. (The threat of closing does make them accountable, but use of that mechanism is terribly disruptive, and causes significant angst for parents and children who must find another educational venue.)

Now it appears that Charters, too, have discovered an escape from accountability. According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Charters closed for poor performance or financial improprieties can simply reinvent themselves as–you guessed it!–voucher schools.

The article addressed announcement of the closure of Thurgood Marshall School, a Charter.

If Fort Wayne’s charter-school history is any indication, however, the school might not remain closed. When authorizer Ball State University pulled the charters for Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway, the schools simply converted to private voucher schools. About $3.6 million in state loans made to Imagine were forgiven…

The sponsors turned to Horizon Christian Academy, which took over operation of the two schools but seems to have made no improvements. The Broadway school was absorbed into the Wells Street campus school in 2016. Enrollment grew, but not academic achievement. After consecutive state accountability grades of D’s and F’s, the state finally prohibited Horizon from enrolling new voucher students this year, but current students continue to receive taxpayer-supported tuition for the school.

At the very least, lawmakers should prohibit Charter schools closed for non-performance from continuing to rip off taxpayers by converting to Voucher status.

What lawmakers ought to do, of course, is admit what the Montana Supreme Court recognized: sending tax dollars to religious schools violates both the state and federal constitutions–whether those dollars are “laundered” through parents or not.

Indiana’s voucher program was sold as a way to give poor children a better education. In reality, it serves middle and upper-income families by requiring taxpayers to subsidize their children’s religious education. It should be phased out.

 

 

 

Word Choices Can Feed Bias

A recent headline in the Indianapolis Star read: “McCormick Calls for LBGTQ Strings on Private School Voucher Money.”  (Jennifer McCormick is Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

Strings? Or standards?

The statement by McCormick–with which I entirely agree–was prompted by a local controversy over actions taken by Roncalli High School. Roncalli is an Indianapolis Catholic High School that placed one of its guidance counselors on administrative leave after discovering that she was in a same-sex marriage. The school has evidently threatened to terminate her unless she dissolves her marriage.

Roncalli has received more than $6.5 million in public money over the past five years through Indiana’s most-expansive-in-the-nation school voucher program.

The issue is simple: should public dollars–which come from all Hoosiers, including gay and lesbian taxpayers–support schools that discriminate against some of those Hoosiers?

I would argue that taxpayer dollars ought not support private–and especially religious– schools at all, but that is an argument for another day. In any event, I found the Star’s headline offensive. By characterizing McCormick’s proposed standards for receipt of public dollars as “strings,” it strongly suggested that an unnecessarily picky bureaucracy was trying to make it difficult for religious schools to participate in Indiana’s voucher program. It utterly trivialized a very important issue, which is the use of public money to subsidize discrimination.

As usual, Doug Masson has a more temperate–and eloquent– response to the story, and to the issue.

The issue of inclusiveness appears to be a reference to Roncalli’s decision to terminate a long-time, well-regarded guidance counselor when the school was made aware (or forced to acknowledge) that the counselor had a spouse of the same sex. Roncalli is a private school but it’s funded — in part — with public money. The question becomes whether public money should come with conditions and, if so, what conditions should be attached. Obviously, it should and does come with conditions. Voucher money can’t just go anywhere. The voucher school has to look and act more or less like a school. If it was, for example, a tavern that labeled itself a “school,” then Rep. Behning would likely change his position. He says:

If parents have a problem with the school’s practices, employment or otherwise, Behning said they can send their child elsewhere. In that case their tuition will follow, whether it’s paid by the parent or by the state. “Parents are the ones that should be making those decisions,” he said, “rather than the government.”

Rep. Behning is obviously being a little disingenuous here. The government simply wouldn’t let parents make the tavern decision. So, as the joke goes, we’re just haggling over the price. Is discrimination on that basis against an otherwise well-qualified employee because she has a same-sex spouse something we’re willing to fund or not? I obviously fall on the “not” side of that question, and it sounds like Dr. McCormick does as well. My guess is that the General Assembly will be perfectly willing to continue subsidizing Roncalli, notwithstanding its employment practices. (Because, remember, my view of the three goals of the General Assembly when it comes to school vouchers: 1) Hurt the teacher’s unions; 2) direct education money to friends & well-wishers; and 3) subsidize religious education.)

Before education reformers write me to protest that we need “alternatives” and “choice” and “innovations,” let me suggest that they research the difference between Charter schools, which are public and subject to the Constitution, and schools receiving vouchers, which are private and aren’t.

As usual, I agree completely with Doug’s analysis. (I do think he’s too kind to Rep. Behning…”disingenuous” isn’t the word I’d have chosen.)

Another word I wouldn’t have chosen is “strings.” As the saying goes, one person’s “red tape” is the next person’s accountability.

If Evidence Mattered….

It’s a depressing time to be teaching public policy.

As I tell my students, there is an analytical process that should be followed by lawmakers who are considering legislation to address a problem, questions that need to be answered before a bill is introduced, let alone voted on.

To wit:

Is this a problem that government can or should address, or is it more properly left to the private and/or nonprofit sector? If it is appropriate for government action, is it the sort of issue that should be handled by government’s own employees, or is it appropriate for contracting out? (There are a number of additional questions we ask to determine that–and judging from the problems that have arisen with “privatization,” it would appear that those questions are seldom asked). Are there potential negative outcomes of the proposed solution(s), and if so, what are they? Do the anticipated benefits of the proposal outweigh the likely costs?

And finally, what do we know about this issue? What does the evidence say?

It may seem obvious that this sort of analysis should always precede policymaking, but too often, laws are based upon ideology rather than a consideration of the available evidence. The recent tax bill is an example. Those who voted for it evidently never heard of Kansas.

School voucher programs are another example.

At the beginning of the voucher experiments, it may have been reasonable to hope that taking poor children out of poorly performing public schools and giving them vouchers to attend private ones would somehow overcome the barriers that make it difficult for poor children in public school classrooms. But as evidence to the contrary has accumulated, policymakers with ideological fixations have ignored or discounted it.

Scholars at the University of Virginia conducted one of the more recent investigations.

For this new study, researchers analyzed data collected from a group of 1,097 kids in nine states who were followed from birth through age 15. The scholars looked at how many had attended private school between kindergarten and their freshman year of high school. They also looked at how the kids performed as ninth graders on a range of benchmarks, including test scores.

When the scholars did a simple comparison, they learned that students who had attended private school at any time in their academic career performed better on most benchmarks than students who only attended public school. But when the scholars controlled for factors related to family resources — the household income-to-needs ratio, for example — they got a very different picture.

They discovered that kids who went to private school and those who only attended public school performed equally as well in the ninth grade in terms of math achievement, literacy, grade-point averages and working memory. They were just as likely to take more rigorous math and science courses, expect to go to college, have behavioral problems and engage in risky behavior such as fighting and smoking.

In other words, the apparent ‘advantages’ of private school education–the academic results that led early voucher proponents to theorize that the private schools were somehow doing something different, something that produced better results –were really due to the socioeconomic advantages of the children whose parents placed them in these schools, not to what went on in the classroom.

In states with voucher programs, desperately-needed resources are being siphoned from the public schools and sent to private, mostly religious schools. This is problematic both fiscally and constitutionally. These programs have been justified by claims that they will improve the academic achievement of children who would otherwise be “trapped” in “failing” public schools. The evidence simply does not support those claims.

it would be comforting to think that the growing body of research–virtually all of which has reached the same conclusion as the Virginia study–would result in policy change.

It would be comforting, but inaccurate. As a friend of mine used to say, you can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.