Reduce diversion of funding from public schools to private educational institutions

Funding Private Schools with Public School Dollars

Goal #4 – Reduce the diversion of funding from public schools to private schools.

 Much has been said about Indiana’s school choice movement.  Much has been said about vouchers.  Much has been said about charter schools.  Much has been said about funding a “progressive” education agenda. 

 To be clear, Indiana’s education reform of the early 21st Century isn’t “progressive”.  The term should be saved for late 19th Century/early 20th Century education reforms that focused on improving schools which operated like factories.  The progressive movement called for child-centered institutions with individualized curriculum focused on applying what was being learned, integration of subjects, collaboration between students, and so much more that is simply known as good teaching today.  No; today’s education reform isn’t progressive.  Today’s education reform is a change from well-researched, grounded practices that have been improved over time.  Today’s education agenda in Indiana isn’t progressive, it is regressive.

 The main message for today: The funding of private schools has been based on a set of financial promises that already have been undone by State leaders as well as a set of educational promises that have not been fulfilled.  Indiana is spending more money on educational reform that is not working and the recent solutions of Indiana’s elected leaders have been to “reform” more.

 Why is the diversion of funding from public schools to private schools an important conversation?  Simple, public schools are the bedrock of our State.  Like philosopher and educational progressive John Dewey described in Democracy and Education (1916), a democratic society requires an educated populace and education, alone, can span the gap so that all adults are productive members of society allowing our society to be maintained and to flourish.

 As public schools lose funding, a segregated system of schools is being created between traditional public schools and private schools that serve only those who are accepted; when this occurs, our great State of Indiana is adversely affected.  While many questioned the wisdom of a system of separate and unequal schools that was the mastermind of elected State leaders through “choice scholarships”, all understood the promise of this educational reform; “The way the voucher program was designed, there was no way it could cost the state money.” (Robert Enlow, quoted in Could Indiana’s School Vouchers Be Saving the State Money? State Impact. November 1, 2011.)

 In May 2011, the Indiana State legislature passed a voucher program that utilized a technicality to pay for private school education through a series of “vouchers”.  An article in the Kokomo Tribune touted this as “The nation’s most expansive voucher program.”  Representative Mike Karickhoff was quoted in the same article as saying “The impact of this bill is so very small” (March 31, 2011.)  The reduced impact came from a set of promises which guaranteed that this program would save the state money.  Then-Governor Mitch Daniels touted the voucher law as saving the State money.  In the promise of vouchers, the rules stated that students would have to try a public school first and that the voucher amount would be less than what was spent on education for the public schools.  This was to be measured through a requirement in State statute that the Indiana Department of Education calculate the savings of the voucher program and redistribute those funds to public schools.  In the first two years of the education reform associated with school vouchers (2011-2012 & 2012-2013), the State saw savings annually of greater than $4 million which were redistributed to public schools.

 And then, as if by pre-planned intent and destiny, the Indiana State legislators began changing the rules that had been promised when the vouchers were established.  Gone was the requirement that public schools be tried first.   Gone were the original thresholds for qualifying for a voucher (raised for different pathways).  Gone were the very rules that helped pass this law in 2011.  Within 4 years of legislation, by 2015, the promises for funding savings were eviscerated.  What remained was a substantial financial burden for funding private education that required a greater number of State dollars at the expense of public education.

 A July 2016 “Choice scholarship program annual report”, prepared by the Indiana Department of Education, showed that the costs of the voucher program are staggering.  The report was originally required to be created in State statute.  However, this was conveniently removed from State statute; almost suggesting that the transparency was no longer needed, or wanted.  Perhaps because the “participation and payment data” present a new reality from this education reform: The 2015-2016 additional costs for funding private education through the “choice scholarship program” (vouchers) was $53,208,197.67!  That’s right, this is the additional cost for students who never attended a public school (as originally promised).  The overall choice scholarship program cost for 2015-2016 was $131,514,681.  This is funding that would have gone to public education if the students remained at a public school district.  Legislators argue that lower expenses exist for public schools because they are educating less students.  However, the fact remains that over $53 million in supplemental costs are reducing the available funds for public schools most in need of adequate funding.

 For Kokomo Schools, the additional costs for 2015-2016 was approximately $50 per student ($49.78) and an overall cost of $295,942.  When legislators tell you that vouchers don’t really impact Howard County schools, they are glossing over one stark reality.  The additional costs for vouchers throughout Indiana are diverting funds from ALL school districts since ALL public schools are funded as part of the same biennial budget set during odd years by Indiana’s state-elected leaders.  No wonder the State legislators eliminated the requirement to have this information calculated!

 As private school vouchers have increased, the threshold for qualifying has been raised: for 2015-2016, a family of four could qualify for 50% funding of a voucher with an income of $89,725.  This has allowed more affluent families to receive vouchers in ways that permit them to never attend public schools.  How has this shifted the demographics of those who receive “choice scholarships”?  Since the 2011-2012 school year, the percent of vouchers received by African American students has decreased from 24% to 13%.  The percent of Hispanic students receiving vouchers has decreased from 20% to 18%.  As a matter of fact, ALL minority populations have seen their percent of vouchers received decrease.  So…the changes have resulted in vouchers received by white students increasing from 46% to 61%. 

 This partially hints at the second set of promises. Not only does Indiana’s choice scholarship program no longer save money, it no longer requires public school attendance first.  Further, the choice program no longer solely benefits students living below poverty and no longer benefits minority students for whom the benefits were often extolled when the program was designed.

 All these facts indicate a need for addressing the failed “school choice scholarship” program.  Legislators must address the fiscal reality they have created in which an exorbitant amount of money is being spent on private education at the expense of public education.  The solution definitely is not to expand this reform agenda our legislators have crafted in celebratory fashion.  Rather, they must revisit the original promises within the school choice scholarship program and fulfill those promises.  Otherwise, this diversion of funding will only grow greater, and the greater good of our local communities will continue to be at risk because of a failed educational experiment.

 John Dewey once wrote, “It is no accident that all democracies have put a high estimate upon education; that schooling has been their first care and enduring charge. Only through education can equality of opportunity be anything more than a phrase.” 

We must ensure that the equality of opportunity within education continues for all Hoosier schoolchildren; lest, we are no better than some political systems we most often criticize.

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