Indiana education voucher experiment: year two begins

This is my last post about Indiana’s education reform efforts (for now), and it’s likely to be the most contentious.

This fall marks the second year that low AND middle-income students (one way that Indiana differs from most states experimenting with vouchers) are eligible for vouchers to attend private schools. A few days ago AP ran a fascinating story about how Indiana public schools are responding.

Struggling Indiana public school districts are buying billboard space, airing radio ads and even sending principals door-to-door in an unusual marketing campaign aimed at persuading parents not to move their children to private schools as the nation’s largest voucher program doubles in size.

The story has attracted a lot of attention, and generated a certain amount of hand-wringing. From the third paragraph of the AP article:

“If we don’t tell people the great things that are happening in our schools, no one else will, especially not now,” said Renee Albright, a teacher in Fort Wayne. “There are private enterprises that stand to benefit if they can portray us as failed schools.”

Since a big share of the voucher money is going to religious schools that don’t make a profit, this invocation of “private enterprise” is a little misleading. But I still find it curious that “private enterprise” is viewed as a pejorative. Private enterprise, after all, has brought us stunningly better and often less expensive products, and proved much more responsive to consumer demand.

Ah, consumer demand. That’s what really intrigues me about the article. Schools – public schools AND private schools hoping to attract voucher students – find that they need to reach out to their consumers, parents, and make a case that they’re providing an excellent education for their children.

Maybe TV ads and billboards will do the trick; as a parent and a teacher who has taught in Catholic schools that need to persuade parents of their value, I would bet on stronger results, better discipline, and a school culture that welcomes and fosters parent involvement. Can public schools offer that? Absolutely. Will it hurt for them to have to prove it to parents? Voucher opponents will say yes, but I’m betting that the biggest beneficiaries of competition will turn out to be public schools.

This posting could get very, very long, so let me instead direct readers to some interesting recent articles.

A Harvard study of New York City’s private voucher program – published this past Thursday – indicates that vouchers significantly improved the odds that African American students would attend college. This is an especially valuable study because it included a scientific control group (students who applied for but did not receive the vouchers, thereby holding constant for “involved parents”) and employed long-term data (1997-2011). Here’s a Wall Street Journal op-ed reporting the data:

And here’s a link to the study itself:

The American Enterprise Institute published a short piece responding to the AP article; it makes the argument for competition.

Here’s an article from last week’s Economist – which if anything proves that Indiana’s experiment is world news:

And finally, a useful warning note for voucher supporters. Many private schools in Indiana saw their test scores drop as they admitted voucher students. No huge surprise – if anything, it suggests that the private schools were, in fact, achieving higher educational standards (and probably educating a different demographic, as well.)

Utah voters decided that the state should not take this path, at least for now. But it will be interesting to see what happens in Indiana . . . and Louisiana. More on Louisiana next week.

Welcome back to school, by the way.


  1. howard beale

    I am okay with private enterprise, I had my daughter in a private school for kindergarten. I footed the bill, however. With vouchers the taxpayers are footing the bill. Let’s be real, most of the people getting vouchers aren’t paying anything close to the amount they would be receiving in vouchers. And why should any tax money be funneled to religious schools (profit or not) or say for profit private schools. Again, I’m for private schools and religious based schools, but let them recruit on their own and let their “customers” paying the bill. Have we not learned from the college cost bubble? When government starts giving money to students to go to college through grants and easy to get loans, prices skyrocketed. This will likely happen, especially at the for-profit private schools. After all, private means exclusive and the other reality, many who send their students to private school seem to want to get away from public schools. They don’t want the public schools coming to them. I would say invest more in the public schools as I suggested in an earlier post. A true investment that would reduce class size and even put two qualified teachers in the classroom and develop better assessments. That would require investment and a paradigm shift. And lastly, it would be great if more parents stepped up to support their public schools and get involved rather than running off to charters and private schools.

    • Mary McConnell

      If private school costs skyrocket, parents and taxpayers won’t pay the difference.

      I’m most familiar with Catholic schools, and most of them are more economical than public schools. One reason, which I’m sure worries you (and with justice) is that they pay teachers less. Another reason is that they have a much, much smaller administrative infrastucture.

      “I’ve posted this before, but here’s an analysis by Mark Perry, an economics and finance professor at the University of Michigan/Flint:

      1. The Chicago Board of Education, which has 3,300 employees, is larger than the entire Japanese Ministry of Education.

      2. The New York City public schools system has 250 times as many administrators as the New York Catholic school system (6,000 administrators in public school system versus 24 in Catholic school system), even though New York public schools have only four times as many students as the Catholic schools.

      3. Administrative costs have exploded since World War II as the number of school districts has declined, from over 100,000 districts in 1945 to fewer than 16,000 in 1980. As school districts have consolidated and grown in size, they have become increasingly bloated–more top-heavy, more bureaucratic, more centralized, less efficient–and more costly to administer.”

      Here’s the link, which you can follow to other articles on the same topic:

  2. howard beale

    I agree that public schools are generally top heavy. The district in which I live (Provo) isn’t actually too bad though it has a bad reputation among the citizens. They don’t have nearly the administration ratio of most districts in Utah and the superintendent makes less than half of what the superintendent gets in Jordan or Canyons, and the district only has a small handful of administrators making over a $100,000. So I think lean is possible even in the public sector, but I agree with you on this Mary that public schools could do better. I must say this however, public schools have other issues private schools don’t which may require additional administrators making those ratios off a bit. Private schools don’t have to worry about special education, ESL, or students with disabilities. Any public school and district must deal with this reality and have administrators and teachers to deal with this.

  3. Carolyn Sharette

    I’m coming a little late to this discussion but I had to comment. Having come to education via charter schools 16 years ago as an idealist and someone who truly believed we could find better ways, I have decided that there is a direct correlation between the following: government funding=increased beauracracy=more administrators and less invested in teaching=less effective services to students=more failing schools=more government programs to reform=increased beauracracy=more administrators and less focus on teaching=less effective schools=……

    I don’t see any way out THROUGH the government. The great American ideal of government schools is in a self-imploding cycle – in some places a faster cycle than in others – but its demise is inevitable and the only way I can see it will change is through privatization, competition and LESS government involvement.

    The schools I manage are government schools – nearly 100% government funded – I realize it is very unpopular to “bite the hand that feeds you” and believe me, personally my life would be much more difficult if I were to have to compete for tuition, collect tuition, etc. However, I truly believe that we are much less likely to solve the educational issues if we don’t release schools from the grip of government funding and the resultant compliance demands that drive the resources ($) away from the classroom. Just keeps getting more and more expensive to educate and we do it less and less well. It seems like it should be so apparent that this model is in a downward spiral and kids are being hurt by it. But the special interests of the adults in all of this win out over “what is best for kids”.

  4. Hanl Balsa

    Sorry, but you folks are wayyyy wrong. What are we seeking? Better education for students of cheaper “products”? Private enterprise does NOT always produce the best product for the least cost and unlike most of you commenting here, I do not consider students a product. In fact, that has been the primary lie that those supporting vouchers have bought into–that schools can be run as if they are producing Fribees. Public education has served the USA very well for 230 plus years-what suddenly changed? For one, the demonizing of teachers and teacher unions. As Ms. McConell states, private religious schools pay their teachers less–a whole lot less; and rarely can a teacher who ONLY has a private school salary achieve even middle class stature. The public schools would do just fine IF the state and community demanded that parents become involved in their children’s education and stop seeing the schools as daycare. Eliminate the laws that allow students to work after school and even weekends. If education takes a back seat to the part time job at Subway, then that student will continue to fail to achieve even mediocre status. Privatizing education, if ever implemented, will be a disaster for this country. One only needs to look at the “management” of private prisons and the undue influence these companies have on the criminal laws to realize that these same folks would apply economic pressure on legislators to craft laws that benefit their companies and not the community or students.
    Vouchers are a scam. Until I see “private schools” accepting and KEEPING every type student-even the disruptive ones”, I will continue to work to alter these laws and provide support to public teachers and schools.

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