The Cost of Vouchers Part 2

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) – In its third year of existence, Indiana’s voucher program has an expected price tag of $81 million this year.

Is that a steep price to pay for parental choice?

Or, is that a small price to pay to help low and middle income children succeed where they wouldn’t in a public school?

In the Cost of Vouchers Part 1, News 18 looked at how Indiana’s School Choice voucher program brought school freedom for the Elliott family and explained how vouchers have actually saved money for public school funding in the first two years of the program, but now those days may be over as soon as this year.

With less than three years of data, there’s been no comparison of testing between voucher and non-voucher students.

Vouchers are music to the ears of nearly 20,000 parents and students across Indiana, including Bianka Garcia. Bianka and her brother Jeovani are two of 68 voucher students at Lafayette Christian School, enrolling here after several years in public school.

“I think it’s a good experience from public school,” said Bianka. “The teachers, they push you to the limit to what you can do.”

Her mother, Delia Santoyo had several reasons for the switch, including she wasn’t happy with the public school they were going to.

While results are limited in Indiana, vouchers have been in place far longer in other locations. Data collected by the Indianapolis-based nonprofit Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice point to a dozen studies with positive gains for voucher students.

Studies in places like Milwaukee, New York City and Charlotte, N.C. show single digit gains for voucher students over control groups:

  • Milwaukee (1998) +8 in math
  • New York City (2010) + 5 in math
  • Charlotte (2008) +8 in reading, +7 in math

A 2010 study in Washington, D.C. showed even if students were just offered a voucher, they graduated at 82 percent, 12 points better than the control group. Students who actually used the voucher graduated at a rate 20 points higher.

“The attainment data is extremely positive and the achievement data is showing small but still statistically significant gains,” said Friedman President and CEO Robert Enlow.

But there are also some mixed results.

That same D.C. study showed no test score gains for voucher students. Several Friedman-cited studies only show gains for African-American students. Other groups showed no gains at all.

According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, in 2011, Milwaukee voucher students scored 9 points below low-income students in math.

But Enlow believes smaller class size and school safety are just as important factors for school choice.

“I think education is much more than merely test scores,” said Enlow.

Voucher opponents like the Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith tell News 18 those mixed results show voucher programs are only taking money away from public schools without providing real returns, something that should be clearly evident after more than two decades of research.

“We’re just not seeing that here. The results are so limited anywhere else, I think it has yet to be seen,” said Meredith.

“There’s no evidence anywhere in the world that would show you that using school choice will actually improve public education,” adds West Lafayette Schools Superintendent Rocky Killion.

Instead, Killion and Meredith believe money would be best spent elsewhere addressing the root of the problem, whether it’s shrinking class sizes, helping teachers develop their craft or boosting early childhood education.

“Is it really to support a student’s academic learning in a different way, or is it an attempt to begin to water down and break down public schools?” asked Meredith.

According to a study done by Purdue researchers David Hummels and Larry DeBoer, Indiana is spending less on K-12 education now than any time in the last 15 years, from 2.7 percent in the general fund in 1997 to 2.2 percent in 2012.

Some districts are raising extra money of their own. West Lafayette is halfway through a seven-year tax referendum passed in 2010, which has kept the district from seeing major changes in the educational experience for its children. Tax referendums in other places have failed.

“I can tell you – point blank – without the referendum and the community supporting our school district, we would not have the arts, we would not have PE, we would not have sports in the school district,” said Killion.

Mary Lecy, a seventh-grade voucher student, gets both PE and band at Lafayette Christian. She had a good experience in public school and has siblings who never left, but personally wanted the freedom to grow in her faith in the classroom, not just at home.

“I think I needed the Christian education just before I go out to high school or college,” said Mary.

Her father Jerry Lecy agrees.

“It definitely has been a very beneficial piece for her and she’s grown a lot and we’re glad for that,” he said.

Bianka, who plays saxophone one row behind Mary’s flute, is glad as well and so is her mother.

Since the Garcia children qualify for a federal free and reduced lunch, they receive up to 90 percent taxpayer support for a voucher from Indiana.

But having seen the difference from public education, Santoyo said her kids would stay at Lafayette Christian, even if vouchers weren’t available.

“That’s not what I said before I came to Lafayette Christian, but after my experience, it’s been so good to where I would do what I have to do to keep them here,” said Santoyo.

“I think, I’ve gotten better,” said her son Jeovani.

“I think, I’ve gotten better, too, because you get more attention and they help more,” adds Bianka.

So, the debate rages on.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s voucher program continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Each year, the number of students has more than doubled, to 19,809 in 2013-2014.

Is the cost of vouchers worth every penny or will it cost Indiana public schools and taxpayers dearly?

Only time will tell.

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