With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Trump’s Education Secretary, Indiana school vouchers, lobbied for by DeVos, introduced in 2011 by then-Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded by subsequent Governor Mike Pence (now Vice-President) has received a lot of attention. In this post, I explain how it works, and summarize arguments both for and against.
Initially, the program was aimed at students who were already in receipt of financial assistance, but the eligibility criteria has been expanded and is no longer tied only to poverty. Upwards of 40,000 Indiana school children currently receive a voucher.
How does it work?
Indiana has devolved much of the administration of the system to participating private schools. The infographic below summarizes the application process.
In praise of vouchers
Proponents of the system argue:
- it gives families more choice about schooling. Poor families are not obliged to send their kids to the local school, if it is a poorly performing (F-rated) school, because they can now afford a private school instead
- kids with special needs – or special talents – may be more able to find tailored education to suit them
- the voucher system is cheaper per student than putting them through state school (this has been disputed)
- educational standards will be raised through more competition
- educational outcomes for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds will be improved.
Criticisms of Vouchers
Critics of the system argue:
- the initial outcry was that vouchers were unconstitutional, because state money was supporting private religious schools. However, that argument failed in court
- many liberals do not believe that public money should prop up private schools at all
- the voucher system will reduce funding to public schools
- some participating private schools donot seem to offer high educational standards.
- it is also not clear that the voucher system has a big impact on struggling families and struggling kids. Many the vouchers are used by parents to subsidize the private school fees that they were already committed to paying.
- as the application criteria has widened, more of the vouchers are going to middle-class kids rather than disadvantaged kids
- minorities remain under-represented in many private schools
- indeed participating private schools can and do reject students
- many rural areas donot have enough students to support much choice
The litmus Test – Better Education Outcomes with Vouchers
Ultimately, the litmus test must be whether better educational outcomes are attained by children who used the vouchers to attend a private school that they otherwise would not have attended. This is stated intention of the program.
Some research indicates there are slight academic gains by minority students under a voucher system, however, a 2016 report from the Brookings Institute indicates that voucher students in Indiana and Louisiana scored lower on reading and maths tests after switching to their private school. They question whether the reputation of private schools for better quality education is well-deserved.
As participating private schools now must adhere to the state-wide testing and standards regimes, new data is becoming available which enables us to compare private and public educational outcomes, and the results can be counter-intuitive. A belief in the superiority of standards in private schools may be in for a shake-up.