A friend recently sent me a rather eye-opening article by three Ball State University researchers. It appeared in an academic journal aimed at school superintendents: The AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. (No link available.)
The title was provocative: Hoosier Lawmaker? Vouchers, ALEC Legislative Puppets, and Indiana’s Abdication of Democracy. Few scholarly articles have titles quite that…combative, but the data was compelling (and the four pages of references were impressive).
Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, a result the article attributes to the excessive influence of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in the state. ALEC is a corporate lobbying organization, and its educational task forces are funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, the Friedman Foundation, Koch Industries, Sylvan Learning and several others; it’s fair to say–as the authors do– that the intensely ideological organization believes “competition is the only legitimate organizing principle for human activity.”
Some 25% of Indiana legislators are members of ALEC, which has been “a legislative force working silently behind the scenes in the Indiana Statehouse.”
The article traces the growth of Indiana’s school voucher program through its abandonment of initial enrollment caps, and the jettisoning of the early rule that children would not be eligible for vouchers unless they’d attended a public school for at least one year. Today, 55% of children using vouchers never attended a public school, and children who enroll in private preschools that accept vouchers are “automatically enrolled” in Indiana’s “choice scholarship” program.
The program is no longer limited to poor children, either: 31% of voucher families could afford private school tuition without state subsidies.
State support for vouchers in 2016-2017 totaled 146.1 million dollars. Between 2011 and 2017, Indiana has spent 520 million dollars on vouchers–and those are dollars that would otherwise have supported public schools. (To add insult to injury, the General Assembly has not required financial reporting by voucher schools–although public schools must disclose their finances.)
In the U.S., 80% of children in private schools are in religious schools; in Indiana, that number is 98%.
So much for the law and the money and the overwhelming influence of ALEC and religion: how are voucher schools performing?
Not very well.
Research shows “persistent, statistically-significant negative impacts” in math, and no improvement over public schools in reading. According to the report, almost 25% of these schools earned F grades from the state in 2015-16, compared to 5% of public schools ; every single online school got an F.
Then there’s segregation. Indiana’s voucher program has “become increasingly affluent and white,” which shouldn’t surprise us, since these schools “set their own admission standards and can reject students for any reason.”
There is much more–none of it reassuring.
Indiana’s voucher program is driven by the libertarian ideology of ALEC and the religious zealotry of Mike Pence and (later) Betsy DeVos–not by considered policymaking by school boards elected to make those policies. The program is draining resources from schools that serve all children, and redirecting those resources to religious institutions that may or may not be teaching real science and accurate American history.
My biggest problem with these programs is in their underlying assumption that education is just another consumer good–a set of skills to make one’s child competitive in the marketplace. Certainly, schools should provide those skills, but in the U.S., public education is also, in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase, “constitutive of a public.” It is an essential element of democracy, especially in a country as diverse as ours.
Our democratic institutions and norms are currently under unprecedented attack from a feckless Congress and a lunatic in the White House–this is no time to shortchange the public schools, no time to abandon e pluribus unum for profit-making ventures offering tribal truths and substandard educations.