The Academics And Economics Behind School Choice

Niki Kelly and Rebecca Klein and Ashley Sloboda and Rosa Salter Rodriguez | A partnership between The Journal Gazette and HuffPost
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Backers See Help For Poor Kids; Critics Say Not So Fast

By Niki Kelly

FORT WAYNE, Ind. ― Reyna Rodriguez is a poster child for school choice.

From a family of six children and two hard-working parents ― a nurse and a firefighter ― she used a tax-paid voucher to graduate from Bishop Luers High School last year in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is now a freshman at Indiana University.

“Without the continued support from all those in favor of the school choice program, I would not be where I am today academically and spiritually,” Rodriguez wrote in a speech she gave at a school choice rally in January. “I firmly believe that the school choice program and Bishop Luers forever changed my life and will continue to help my family and many other families that are financially burdened.”

That speech garnered attention nationally and Rodriguez was soon standing beside U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a special guest at an Indianapolis conference in May.

That’s because Indiana’s voucher program, the largest in the nation after just six years, could be a guide for a national initiative.

But not everyone is on board with using tax dollars to pay for religious education at a private school. Republican state lawmakers implemented the program and have tweaked it little by little to expand its reach and possibly its entire premise.

“The way it was rolled out was perceived to be more of a focus on our most at-risk students ― to get them out of situations where public schools weren’t performing,” said Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick. She is a Republican, but this is one area in which she disagrees with her political colleagues.

(The Journal Gazette)

“Now when you look at the data, it has become clear that the largest growing area is suburban white students who have never been to public school,” McCormick said.

The latest report on the Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program shows that less than 1 percent of those with vouchers came from a failing public school. And most of those using vouchers have never attended an Indiana public school.

It is not clear what metrics should be used to gauge whether Indiana’s experiment has been a success. Yet the program has exploded ― from 3,900 students in the first academic year to more than 34,000 in 2016-17.

Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) pushed the program at the beginning and said his first goal was social justice ― “simply to rectify the inequity that says wealthy people can choose their kids’ school and low-income people couldn’t.”

But Daniels, now in his fifth year as president of Purdue University, said the program was never solely about the academic performance of public schools.

“Values and safety are other reasons parents can make that choice,” he said. “I always look at parental satisfaction as a starting point. It’s not just about SAT scores.”

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who pushed for the choice program at the start, said choosing a private school is "not just about SAT scores." (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Carl Loesch, secretary for Catholic education at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said that “how we define success can’t be measured by a test. It’s if our kids get to heaven. At the end of our day, the Lord’s going to ask us, ‘I sent 5,000 kids your way. What’d you do with them?’”

He clarified that’s the big picture but academic achievement and artistic growth are also important.

Loesch’s focus on God goes to the point that all but a handful of the private schools accepting vouchers are faith-based. Some people criticize the idea of state money going to religious programs, but early on, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the program as constitutional.

Betsy Burdick, president of the Institute for Quality Education, said academic success is an obvious metric but it’s not the only one. The group has pushed heavily for choice in Indiana.

“I don’t think parents choose a school because they want their kids to fail academically,” Burdick said. “I think that’s inherent in their choice.” But she added there are other measures, including class size, safety and values.

An initial study of data from Indiana’s Choice showed students using a voucher saw their math achievement fall on average, although students who remained in private school for four years improved to match or outperform public school students in math and English.

Not exactly a resounding victory for voucher supporters.

“The piece used to sell it was all about academics and now they aren’t interested in those comparisons,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

“It’s now an opportunity for a middle-class white family who might live in an urban area to remove themselves from any challenges that they’re uncomfortable with or take them away from any classes where they might not like the makeup of the class,” she said.

The allegation of segregation is showing up as a growing number of those receiving vouchers are white.

In the first year, 24 percent of voucher participants were black and now that percentage is 12 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of voucher students who are white started at 46 percent and has grown to 60 percent. Hispanic involvement has increased in raw numbers but remained relatively steady as a percentage of the total.

State Rep. Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis), a choice stalwart, said vouchers are available to all financially eligible children regardless of race.

And Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, said vouchers serve more children of color than the public schools serve in an average year. He also said that in the 2015-16 academic year, 68 percent of kids taking vouchers were on free and reduced lunch compared to 47 percent in public schools.

“I think the thing that bothers me the most in the press is how this program is portrayed as taking significant funding away from the public school system, when in reality it’s about 1.5 percent of their total funding,” said Loesch.

He said only 3 percent of students in the state are on vouchers. “I don’t see that number dramatically increasing,” Loesch said. “I don’t think the public schools should feel threatened about a huge exodus.”

But the impact on public schools is at the heart of the debate as lawmakers provide a pot of money that has to be split among traditional public, charter and private voucher schools.

McCormick noted that while lawmakers have increased the dollars, there are also more schools vying for the cash.

“We are all after the same resources so when resources are scarce it becomes difficult,” she said. “And it’s not just money ― it’s teachers, administrators, buildings, support staff, bus drivers.”

Students at both public and voucher schools must take the state’s standardized tests and those scores largely make up the A-to-F grades every school receives.

The similarities stop there: All private schools in Indiana can choose to have unlicensed teachers, they can discriminate based on sexual orientation, they don’t have a public budget, their board meetings aren’t open to the public, and they can deny admission to students because of grades, disruptive behavior and a child’s special needs.

Meredith noted that voucher money has eased financial strains at some churches, which can now use donations to build chapels and other facilities rather than support their schools.

Jenny Andorfer, director of admissions for Bishop Luers, said that is simply not true and pointed to the school’s new media center as the latest improvement to an aging facility that was paid for by a fund drive. She said vouchers don’t cover the full cost of tuition and the church still provides financial assistance, especially to families just above the income cutoff.

State Rep. Martin Carbaugh (R-Fort Wayne) filed a bill last year to require voucher schools to submit reports showing how money received for each choice scholarship student was used by the school.

Behning refused to hold a hearing on the bill, noting that the state provides millions in financial assistance for Hoosier kids to go to college. They can take those scholarships to public or private colleges, he said, and no one is asking the University of Notre Dame what they are doing with the money.

Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) has perhaps been hit the hardest by the expanding use of vouchers. In an urban center known as the “city of churches,” there was already a vast network of faith-based schools. 

Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, called it "morally wrong to turn children into the objects of a business model." (Cathie Rowand/The Journal Gazette)

FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson is passionate when she says lawmakers have created a business of education. And she called out voucher schools for recruiting not just for athletes but for transcripts.

One local private school sent an acceptance gift basket with balloons and treats to an eighth-grader at a FWCS magnet school to welcome the student to the private school. After a few of those arrived, FWCS started turning the baskets away.

“It’s now down to a business and how can I attract your students away, but they only want certain ones,” Robinson said. “It’s morally wrong to turn children into the objects of a business model. The kids they want are the ones that they don’t have to spend a lot of money on, ’cause then they can make a profit.”

Andorfer and the diocese denied cherry picking. And perhaps Daniels offered the best response to all the criticism.

“I think it’s absurd,” the former governor said. “Stop blaming the parents because they chose a different place. Provide a safe and effective school and you’ll have no problems.”

Robinson has seen almost 4,700 students leave FWCS on vouchers ― and many are leaving A- and B-graded public schools. Dozens return every year too, but there is still a net loss.

Overall, the retention rate for voucher students during the school year is 95 percent. It drops to 80 percent from year-to-year as either students are not invited back, parents can’t afford their share of the cost or the family simply decides another option is better. 

“I don’t want to come across as whining because it’s the law of the state and, God help us, it could be the law of the land,” Robinson said. “But let’s not play games. Don’t say this is the best thing because you’re taking kids from failing schools. That’s not what we see.

“I’m afraid the whole country is going to be sold a bill of goods.”

So far, DeVos and President Donald Trump have touted a historic education choice proposal but given no details.

Meredith said the thought of a national program modeled after Indiana makes her “want to throw up.”

Even Burdick and Enlow ― who have worked for years for choice ― caution against some sort of national voucher, noting that several states have their own system and it isn’t clear how everything would work together.

Another option would be to provide a school choice tax credit, which might be folded into the still-under-construction federal tax reform bill.

Daniels doesn’t think there should be a national program at all, noting that states now have the power to define their own programs.

“I’d be very dubious about anything that added cost to the deficit,” he said. “It would be another injustice to dump a pile of debt on these kids.”

The Indiana's Choice program garners praise and criticism even as the number of students receiving vouchers rises. (Washington Post/Getty Images)

How Choice Impacts Diversity In Schools

By Rebecca Klein

FORT WAYNE, Ind. ― It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when a group of parents sued, that Fort Wayne desegregated its public elementary schools.

At the time, even decades after Brown v. Board of Education made state-sanctioned school segregation illegal, black and white children were mostly siloed into their own facilities within the city’s largest school district. White children received the bulk of the community’s resources, while black students got what was left.

Years later, Fort Wayne Community Schools has become a rare bright spot in a country that has largely turned its back on desegregation. The community has been generally supportive as well, and unlike in other places that attempted to desegregate, white families never fled the area in droves.

But community stakeholders are now questioning whether Indiana’s voucher program, adopted in 2011, may be starting to undo some of these achievements.

The state program, which uses public funding to help students afford private schools, is supposed to provide low-income children with the same access to educational opportunities as their more affluent peers. Local and national critics of the program say they worry that it actually allows middle-class students to escape diverse public schools in favor of more homogeneous private schools.

In Indiana, where the median household income is $49,255, the income eligibility requirement to receive vouchers is liberal compared to that of other state programs. A family of four that earns up to $91,020 is eligible to receive a partial publicly funded scholarship. This means wealthier white families can take advantage of scholarships and potentially self-segregate, said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public policy research group.

These fears did not arise in a vacuum. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed to the racial history of voucher programs as a warning sign. On the heels of Brown v. Board of Education, some Southern officials closed their public schools to avoid admitting students of color. Private school tuition grants were provided to white students so they could attend their own separate academies. 

To determine whether voucher schools in Fort Wayne could be facilitating a more modern form of white flight, HuffPost examined demographic data for public and private schools between 2011 and 2017, collected by the Indiana Department of Education.

Of the 27 out of 28 private schools for which we had data, only four increased their percentage enrollment of white students over that time. Private schools in Fort Wayne overall went from 84 percent white in 2011 to 74 percent white in 2017. Public schools went from 58 percent white to 55 percent white.

These numbers suggest that widespread white flight has not occurred since the voucher program went into effect in Fort Wayne. But local critics note there are more subtle forms of segregation. The voucher system, according to teachers and advocates involved with FWCS, has created a two-tiered system consisting of the haves and the have-nots.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sees a lesson in the racial history of voucher programs. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson said she has witnessed local private schools actively working to recruit the best and brightest students away from public schools.

“[They’re] going after the kids who are the best football players, going after the kids who can help you get [to] state in show choir, going after the speech kids,” said Robinson, whose district boasts a nearly 90 percent graduation rate, higher than the state average. “It’s almost like college athletic recruiting, that is almost what this has turned into.”

Robinson described receiving elaborate gift baskets with balloons from a local private school for some of her students as a recruiting tactic. She also noted that as the income eligibility requirements for vouchers have broadened, the program no longer targets only the poorest students.

“Vouchers have changed the complexities of parochial schools because now you’re chasing the dollar so you have more diversity. But the voucher doesn’t cover all the expenses in a private school,” Robinson said. “I think racial diversity may be something people focus on. The financial diversity is where this is coming down. It has created haves and have-nots.”

Meanwhile, private schools do not have to provide the same services for students with special needs as public schools do, leaving public institutions with the responsibility of serving some of the hardest-to-reach students, Robinson said.

Mark GiaQuinta, an attorney and former president of the FWCS board, echoed those criticisms.

“Unfortunately my belief is that parochial schools are using young adults of color to bolster their athletics. Then they boast about the fact that they’re integrating their schools, but to what extent?” GiaQuinta said.

Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, disagrees. He said there is no available data to support such anecdotes. GiaQuinta and Enlow both said they wish such data were collected, even as they diverge on what they think such a study would show.

To try to discredit the claims that private schools are cherry-picking students, Enlow pointed to the early results of a study from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky. The study, currently in the peer review process, shows students on vouchers initially experience dips in math scores, but catch up to their public school peers after four years.

“If the private schools were recruiting the best students, then you would not see a drop-off in the test scores,” Enlow said.

Robinson said she doesn’t know if she’ll live to see the end of Indiana’s voucher program, but she will continue fighting for the thousands of kids who remain in her schools.

With vouchers, she said, “It’s not just desegregation ― it’s economic, it’s social, it’s all kinds of levels. We are using public dollars to have boutique schools.”

Mark GiaQuinta, former president of the FWCS board, and Wendy Robinson, superintendent of FWCS, are united in their concern that voucher schools are undermining true integration. (Cathie Rowand/The Journal Gazette)

Vouchers May Not Be Reaching Kids With Special Needs 

By Rosa Salter Rodriguez

FORT WAYNE, Ind. ― Part of Kelly Pence’s job is counseling parents of children with autism on their educational options, and lately she’s noticed a change in the questions that parents ask.

Few want to know whether they should use the Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program’s vouchers to send their children to a private school. 

“A lot of our parents just aren’t using them,” said Pence, a mother of two high-school-age children with autism from Garrett, Indiana.

“A part of that is just because we have such a difficult time getting services in the first place that wherever you’re getting the services you need, you tend to stay there because moving requires starting over. It’s a hassle,” Pence said. 

Since 2011, Indiana’s voucher program, touted by supporters as a model for the nation, has allowed parents who meet certain income guidelines to use government money to educate their children outside public schools. But relatively few students with special educational needs appear to be using vouchers.

That has led critics to charge that private schools are discriminating against such students and that the program is concentrating students with more complicated diagnoses and more expensive needs in public schools, draining them of resources.

Indiana Department of Education enrollment statistics show that since the 2011-12 academic year, the statewide percentage of special education students enrolled in nonpublic schools has increased ― from 2.9 percent that first year to 3.5 percent in 2016-17. But that is smaller than the increase of about 10 percentage points in special education students enrolled in public schools over the same period. 

And unlike public schools, which must provide a free and appropriate education to all eligible children or run afoul of disability law, private schools can refuse admission to students, including those with special needs.

Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson said that amounts to discrimination based on disability. 

“It’s now down to a business ―  how can I attract your students away, but I only want certain ones,” she said.

“We even have examples of there are four kids in a family ― three of them are gen[eral] ed[ucation] and one is special ed. They actually say to people, ‘Fort Wayne does such a better job with special education students. The other three we can help you with, but we really don’t have services for your special education student,’” said Robinson.

Mark GiaQuinta, former president of the board of FWCS, said local enrollment numbers reflect the situation.

In fact, since the voucher program began, FWCS has consistently had between 14.5 and 15.5 percent of its students in special education, for a total of 4,514 students last school year.

But several area parochial schools willing to accept students with vouchers ― Central Lutheran School in New Haven, Bishop Dwenger and Bishop Luers high schools in Fort Wayne, and Aboite Christian School in Roanoke ― had far fewer students in special education. Together, they had a total of 104 students in special education last year ― with individual shares ranging from zero (Aboite Christian) to 6.2 percent (Luers). State statistics don’t reveal how many of those students used vouchers.

“We [public schools] don’t have the choice not to accept them [students with special needs], and we don’t avoid them,” GiaQuinta said. “All children are entitled to a quality education. It’s just that private schools can pick pretty much who they want.”

Jon Mielke, superintendent of the Lutheran Schools of Indiana, which is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn’t see it that way. The law allows parents to make a decision to use a private school they might not otherwise be able to afford, he said in an emailed statement.

According to Mielke, area Lutheran schools “work closely with public school leaders and teachers in efforts to help identify and agree on the types of services that are needed and provided. We willingly collaborate to serve the best interests of students.

“No special-needs resources would flow from the public schools to the nonpublic schools unless there were children enrolled that required those services,” he added. “The legislative intent is that those resources would serve the child.”

Phil Downs, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, said that his district willingly serves the special needs students at private schools, who can elect to have the public school provide specialized services and therapies.

Specialists even go to nonpublic schools if they don’t have an appropriate staff member. “It’s just unwieldy,” he said.

Every year, two or three students with special needs who have vouchers leave private schools for the Southwest Allen public schools, according to Downs.

Emelie Workman of Fort Wayne, a parent of two students with special needs, did just that with her children. Workman said she would have preferred her children be educated in a religious environment, and she liked the small class size and the individualized attention in the smaller religious school they attended for a time.

But she found no guarantee that their needs would be met.

Even though the Individualized Education Program for a child with special needs is a legal document and presumably binding, only public schools have procedures in place if things don’t go well, Workman said.

In a nonpublic school, there may be no other recourse than to remove the child if the child has behavioral issues stemming from a disability or a parent is told the child’s needs can’t be met, she said.

With too few therapists to go around, children in nonpublic schools may also be last on the list to get services, said Workman, who has been affiliated with About Special Kids, a statewide parent support organization.

Workman recommends that any parent of a student with special needs talk with other parents and educators at prospective schools before making a decision ― and then stay on top of their students’ progress.   

Her children are both back in public schools. “Academically, I don’t see much of a difference,” Workman said. “Behaviorally, I feel their needs are being met, and I feel a little more that staff are trained so they can be met.

“They’re doing OK for what they need to be doing.”

Pence said many parents of students with special needs are trying to find alternatives to vouchers and to public schools. Homeschooling is one, she said, and online schooling is booming. “We’re seeing a huge shift in our population on the autism spectrum that way, said Pence, who also works as a parent ally for the Autism Society of Indiana.

Students in one online school, the Indiana Connections Academy, can still access the sports and extracurricular activities of public schools and have the same curriculum, testing and graduation requirements, Pence said. 

“For me, it’s forget the dumb voucher system and go with what these kids need, which is more training and resources [for teachers],” she said. “I just think there are so many of us who have struggled to make it work. ... We’re tired.” 

Jordan Miller teaches a junior English class at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne. (Cathie Rowand/The Journal Gazette)

Parents Go Parochial After Losing Faith In Public

By Ashley Sloboda

FORT WAYNE, Ind. ― Beth and Heath Bearman come from a family of public school teachers and enrolled their children in public schools.

Over time, however, their satisfaction with Fort Wayne Community Schools waned as classes became more disruptive and less like a learning environment, Beth Bearman said.

The difference between public and parochial school environments became especially clear, the parents said, after son Enzo’s first day as a third-grader at Saint John the Baptist Catholic School. When asked whether anyone got into trouble, they recalled, the now fifth-grader said yes ― but nobody threw a desk.

Vouchers made it possible for the Catholic family of eight to send their children to parochial schools, with one currently attending Bishop Luers High School and two at Saint John the Baptist. Three of their children are in college.

Their story is typical of families using the Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, said Jenny Andorfer, Luers’ director of admissions.

Founded in 1958, the Catholic high school in south Fort Wayne has received $6.97 million in voucher payments since 2011-12, with last year bringing about $1.89 million and covering nearly two-thirds of the school’s 617 enrollment.

Vouchers don’t pay the full tuition cost, which varies depending on the number of children from a family who are enrolled and whether the family is registered in a diocesan parish. The 2017-18 tuition for one student is $5,775 for registered families and $7,008 for non-registered families, plus $1,220 in fees for every student.

Luers, which is owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, also offers financial aid and scholarships.

“We want to make private school education affordable for all families,” Andorfer said.

With a maximum capacity of 720 students, Luers aims for 600 students and started this academic year with 587, she said.

Since 2010, its student body has become more diverse, racially and economically.

Seven years ago, 81 percent of its students were white; last year, 57 percent were. The Hispanic population has grown from 6 percent to 19 percent, and the black population has nearly doubled, from 9 percent to 17 percent.

In 2010, 15 percent of Luers students were on free or reduced lunch; last year, 37.5 percent were.

The special education population has remained steady at about 6 percent in recent years.

Luers’ graduation rate has consistently surpassed 95 percent in recent years, and its overall school A-to-F grade fell from an A to a B only last year.

The state’s accountability system considers multiple factors in grading schools, including graduation rates and student performance in math and English. It has faced criticism from school leaders, who have said the grades aren’t an accurate reflection of what happens in classrooms.

With more voucher students, Andorfer conceded there has been a slight negative impact on Luers’ overall academic performance. But she said the school makes its expectations clear to students and doesn’t pick and choose only the best.

“If we look at a student’s application and we feel that they have failing test scores, failing grades, we take into account the middle school they attended, and if we feel it’s not in that student’s best interest to be here or that they cannot be successful here, then we do reserve the right to not accept them,” Andorfer said.

“But we don’t just pick the highest of the high, the best of the best students. We have a lot of average-level students. We feel there is opportunity for improvement in every child,” she added.

Andorfer, who guided reporters on a brief tour at the start of the school year, noted that the building itself doesn’t have many frills. Analogue clocks hung in the hallways, and chalkboards were visible in classrooms.

A window-lined hallway provided a courtyard view, where Andorfer commented on the school’s size. “You’re looking at the whole building, almost,” she said.

Like any high school, flyers dotted the walls to promote various programs, a trophy case boasted of students’ accomplishments, and athletes’ lockers were decorated.

But this clearly is a parochial school. Students wore uniforms ― generally, red or black polo shirts paired with khakis or black pants ― and in one hallway there was a wooden cross draped in rosary beads. A chapel greets students in the entryway.

On its website, Luers said it offers a “faith-based, college preparatory curriculum” that educates students spiritually, academically and socially. The religious education is an aspect that both students and parents said they value.

Rica Rodriguez, a junior, likes that students can talk about religion any time with any teacher, she said.

Camille King, a senior whose parochial school experience began with neighboring Lutheran South Unity School, isn’t Catholic but said she isn’t treated any differently.

“A community isn’t meant to be the same,” she said. “I couldn’t have picked a better school, honestly.”

Her younger sister, junior Ani King, said she appreciates teachers’ willingness to help students.

After trying everything to stay in FWCS, the Bearmans said their children have found success at Luers. They pointed to its small classes ― the school website boasts of a 16:1 student-teacher ratio ― and students’ behavior.

“They were there to learn,” Heath Bearman said. “It has everything here.”

The Journal Gazette teamed up with HuffPost for an in-depth look at the Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, commonly referred to as the voucher program.

Stories by Journal Gazette reporters Niki Kelly, Ashley Sloboda and Rosa Salter Rodriguez and HuffPost reporter Rebecca Klein examine how the initial concept in Indiana expanded, the faith-based curriculum some schools use, whether vouchers are affecting the demographics of schools, where students with special educational needs attend, and the effect on home school enrollment.

The top photo of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking on May 3, 2017, is credited to Mark Wilson via Getty Images.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.