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A Win for Education Reform in Indiana

Indiana’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the state’s voucher program, giving a serious boost to education reform. The program had come under attack for diverting public money to religious education, but the court rejected this argument in a unanimous decision. The WSJ reports:

The judges, upholding an earlier trial-court decision, ruled that as long as the state maintains a public-education system, using Indiana tax dollars to help fund the private-school educations of low- and middle-income children doesn’t violate the state Constitution.

Indiana spent $38 million this school year on vouchers for more than 9,300 students. Next school year, the law calls for lifting a cap on the number of eligible students. The Friedman Foundation estimates about 540,000 students, or 54% of Indiana public-school students will then be eligible for vouchers. Indiana has “the broadest program without a doubt,” Mr. Enlow said.

Along with charter schools, voucher programs that empower parents are among the more promising ideas for primary education reform. But critics make a solid point that there needs to be some form of quality control for schools that receive voucher funds. This should not come in the form of a huge, crushing bureaucracy, and the emphasis should always be on helping students and schools succeed. But for these programs to fulfill their potential and for students to get the best possible chance in life, there needs to be some accountability.

Still, congratulations to Indiana on an important step forward.

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  • Corlyss Drinkard

    “for these programs to fulfill their potential and for students to get the best possible chance in life, there needs to be some accountability.”
    I thought this accountability came from the parents’ ability to move the kids to another school. Vouchers should not tie a child to a particular school.

    • ojfl

      I was under the same impression Corlyss, that by involving parents’ decision, that would be accountability enough.

    • Clayton Holbrook

      Perhaps the accoutability comes in the form of set educational standards hopefully based on worldwide standards. The State grants autonomy to private or charter schools to educate kids as they see fit; no special interests or set daily teacher curriculums etc. And they allow parents to choose schools creating competiton, thereby hopefully elevating demand for quality. But in exchange for that autonomy and choice the schools are held highly accountable to meet those established performance standards.

      That’s the point of reform, right? We need to elevate standards based on what our kids need to compete in the world economy. Autonomy in exchange for accoutability to acheive maximun quality standards.

      • Corlyss Drinkard

        “We need to elevate standards based on what our kids need to compete in the world economy.”
        I’m not sure elevation of standards to some quixotic worldwide benchmark is what is needed. If high school kids were going to work as system administrators for Cisco in the 80s and programmers don’t need college to do what they do, and entrepreneurs don’t need an MBA to create new industries, we need a lower standard for high school achievement. Reading and writing a solid paragraph, minimal math, and solid civic/history education would do for most people. For the last 50 years schools have done two things that were none of their business and we as a society have suffered for it: 1) they were used as social policy labs; and 2) they tried to educate everyone to go to college and failed miserably. Kids today are not sound thinkers, they can’t speak or write compete sentences without copping the work from the internet, they have no idea of even basic national civics or history. For mastery of the necessities, high school graduates in the early 1900s gave better value to society than high school graduates of today do.

  • Scott Morgan

    I don’t know much about the Indiana voucher program but it sounds as though it will be an excellent test of whether an extensive voucher program improves student achievement through competition. That is, it will be an excellent test if they have taken the time to figure out in advance how they intend to evaluate the program.

    Far too often we see jumps to a “great reform” and no one bothers to sit down and decide how it will be determined if the latest and greatest actually works. Gut feelings that we will just know whether it works or not are not very good evaluations.

    Results don’t have to be limited to quantifiable test scores. Qualitative evaluations by trained educators are also valuable. The point though is to have some evaluation in mind at the start.

    And no, whether parents “like it” isn’t enough. The point is for kids to learn and be prepared for a rapidly changing world.

    • Mark Michael

      New York City has had a lottery to select students to go to charter schools for many years. That’s because 3 or 4 times as many students apply as there are slots available in charter schools. A large study was conducted of these students with respect to their academic achievement. It lasted quite a few years – maybe 6. It allowed a perfect unbiased study by using equal numbers of students who were lottery winners and who were lottery losers and had to stay in the traditional public schools. The demographics of the control group stuck in the regular public school was identical to the “winners” who attended charters. (It’s commonly said that charter students are self-selected, so they’re more motivated to learn. They’re the best students, so it’s not really the school but the students/families that makes the difference. This study refuted that.)

      The study showed that the charter students advanced steadily over their control group peers each year they continued to attend the charter school. It was a statistically-significant amount. This was written up in maybe the Atlantic mag. (I forget exactly where I saw – maybe the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal).

      The same thing was shown to be true in Dayton, Ohio where I live.

      The only way a charter survives is to do better in the eyes of the parents, or they’re not going to bother to go to the trouble to move their child into it.

      Actually, to throw in a note of realism, SOME parents want their child to become a super-good athlete, so they might look for a school that has an outstanding athletic program, or an outstanding coach. Not every parent cares about academics, and the “free market” tries to give the customer what he wants, not what us “do-gooders” thinks he should want. Others care a lot about the arts – music, theater, painting, and send their child to a school that specializes in that.

      • Scott Morgan

        That is interesting information about the NYC experience. The only point I would make in response is that there are at least two “customers” in this situation.

        Certainly the parents are one customer and they bring a legitimate set of interests. However, there is also a second “customer” and that is the state. The two customers have similar but not identical interests.

        Both (presumably) want the kids to succeed (however that’s defined) but the state also wants all schools that it funds to get better. To truly succeed from a state standpoint, the competition provided by charter schools needs to push other schools to improve. That needs to be part of any state’s evaluation.

        • Mark Michael

          The charter school movement started in 1998 in Ohio. Dayton was a hotbed of charters, sponsored by the Fordham Foundation, plus more NGOs. The traditional Dayton Public School (DPS) District usually came in dead last in the state of the total of 612 school districts year after year. Once the charters started and substantial students left to go to the charters, the test scores of the DPS District students went up steadily year after year. I’m doing this from memory, but the numerical score started in the 50’s and by the mid-2000s, it had risen to the 70s. The charters themselves started out poorly, but steadily improved year after year as their teachers gained experience and learned how to teach inner city children.

          I realize this is a shocker, but Adam Smith, the “invisible hand,” that whole Scottish Enlightenment thing, competition, et al, was the real deal!

          Actually, there were a couple charters (out of typically 25 to 35, they came and went over the years), that were very poorly run, and the state passed some modest controls that let the state go in, in obvious cases of malfeasant behavior, and close them down, which they then did. Charters must administer the same tests as the regular public schools, of course.

          BTW, the outcry when charters misbehaved was much louder than when 70% of the regular public schools getting F or D grades year after year. No one ever said, “Shut down those perennially failing regular public schools” although state law permitted that. That double standard ensured that the charters always outperformed the traditional public schools. They typically got 7 to 9 of the top scores of the 10 top schools, although they have 6,000 students out of 23,000 total. They get about half the funding per pupil.

  • Mark Michael

    You left out the most interesting rationale the Indiana Supreme Court included in their ruling:

    “We find it inconceivable,” the justices wrote, that the framers meant to prohibit government spending from which a religious institution could ultimately benefit. Everything from police protection to city sidewalks benefit religious institutions, but “the primary beneficiary is the public,” and any benefits to religious groups are “ancillary and indirect,” said the ruling. “The direct beneficiaries under the voucher program are the families of eligible students and not the schools selected by the parents for their children to attend.”

    I hope this wording will be copied around the country when the teachers unions bring their lawsuits against the voucher programs. There is a suit pending in Louisiana’s Supreme Court challenging Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program. That program is as broad as the Indiana one. The Alabama Supreme Court set aside a lower court ruling holding in abeyance the signing of a voucher bill by the governor on the grounds the legislature violated its own rules about how to conduct its legislative business. I imagine now that the bill is signed and an Alabama state law, the teachers union will challenge it in the courts.

  • Bruno_Behrend

    But critics make a solid point that there needs to be some form of quality control for schools that receive voucher funds.

    Really? Let’s enforce the same requirements on ALL schools then.

    I, for one, would argue that merely showing forward progress should be enough for any school. The idea that an organization as large as state (much less an entire nation) has expertise in setting such standards is pretty thin.

    The 70 years experience in centralizing education in needless “districts” is all the proof we need to see that they’ve failed.

    If anything, we should have an open market in testing as we should in educating. Why should rigged state tests, the ACT and SAT be the only arbiters of quality?

  • Terrence McMahon

    The problem right now is that out in some rural areas the alternative schools are very small and don’t have the resources to handle kids with special needs. The voucher system won’t pay a small private school enough to cover those costs. Those schools will end up with the “easy” kids. The public schools will still have to fund the special programs and mandates, but will have less money to do it.

    That being said, I do believe that competition will result in better public schools, since the administrators will have to learn to target the money they do receive so that they get the most academic bang per buck.

  • Early David Ehlinger

    The accountability comes from the free market. If parents judge the voucher-receiving school as derelict, I can damn well guarantee they will pull their kid out and send them elsewhere. Know how I know? I went to one (parochial, k-12) school for kindergarten and first grade, and another for the rest of grammar and middle school, and I have no reason to believe other parents are any less protective than mine.

    Schools that fail to live up to market standards will either improve, or go out of business. It’s as simple as that.

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