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The summer of 2011 illuminated a reality that Indiana policymakers have come to appreciate more and more over the past 1.5 years: There is (and was) a latent demand for school choice among Hoosier parents.  As the statistics bear out, parents relished the opportunity to take their rightful place as their children’s primary educators and enroll them in a school that best fit their learning needs.

Even with suboptimal circumstances, the response to Indiana’s choice legislation has been tremendous.  Although Indiana passed its statewide voucher bill in the spring of 2011, details of how the program would operate remained murky for months.  In fact, the rules and regulations for the bill were not released until approximately six weeks before the start of the school year – a time long past when most parents make up their minds regarding which schools their children will attend.  Despite the short notice, more than 3,900 students were enrolled in the school of their parents’ choosing using an Indiana Choice Scholarship.  (About 2/3 of these students were enrolled in Catholic schools.)  This high demand among parents to direct their children’s education was even more evident during the second year, as the number of students participating in the voucher program more than doubled.  (About 3/5 of these students enrolled in Catholic schools.)

The voucher bill passed in 2011 was unquestionably a good start, but the legislation was certainly not without areas for improvement. Given that Indiana was the first state to institute a program of this magnitude, it is certainly understandable that some compromises needed to be made along the way.  Nevertheless, with the success of the program in its first year and a half, legislators are now attempting to grow the program with HB1003.

If enacted, HB 1003 would expand the Indiana vouchers program to more families in the coming school years. Although amendments have been made to the original bill, HB 1003 would still empower more Hoosier parents with greater influence over their children’s education.  Expansions to the current voucher law include granting eligibility to the following groups of students:

  • Kindergarten students
  • Siblings of students who previously received a voucher or SGO scholarship
  • Foster children with family income below 200% of the Free or Reduced Lunch
  • Students with special needs with family income below 200% of the Free or Reduced Lunch
  • Children of parents who are in the military or an honorably discharged veteran with family income under 200% of free and reduced lunch

Additionally, the maximum amount of a voucher for students enrolled in grades 1-8 would increase from $4,500 to $5,000 for the 2013-2014 school year and $5,500 for the 2014-2015 school year.

While the ultimate fate of HB 1003 is still undetermined, such efforts are a hopeful sign for a future in which all Hoosier families will have the resources to enroll their children in the schools the parents deem best for them.

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This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

Last week, the Louisiana state legislature approved one of the most expansive school choice programs in the country.  The expansion of the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program will allow low- and middle-income students in Louisiana public schools graded “C,” “D,” or “F” by the state accountability system to receive government-funded vouchers to attend private schools.  The bill (House Bill 976, co-sponsored  by Rep. Steve Carter and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley) received bi-partisan support and was passed  in the House by a vote of 60-42 and in the Senate 24-15.

Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, speaking on a panel hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago, offered support Monday for public money “following” students to private schools, which comes as a welcome surprise to parental choice advocates.

“It doesn’t make sense (that) our parents pay taxes and then pay tuition (for their children) to go to (private) school as well,” Brizard said.  He also added, “It’s a matter of making sure the dollars follow children. …If 500 traditional CPS (students) would go to the parochial schools … the proportional share (of dollars) should go to the school actually educating those children.”

Although Illinois still has a great deal of progress to make before school choice is realized throughout the state, news like this certainly give reason for hope.

I wanted to throw my hat in the ring in response to Matt’s most recent post, School Choice and Catholic Schools, and a post that he references from Scott Alessi from the U.S. Catholic.  Both Matt and Scott make important distinctions about why Catholics support school choice.  Scott offers this:

Undoubtedly, Catholic schools do have a lot to gain from voucher systems, but we have to remember that is not the primary reason why Catholics support them. The real issue here is one of justice, that every child deserves equal access to a quality education regardless of their social or economic status.  Our agenda isn’t about self-preservation, it is about doing what is best for everyone. That means we want to see all kids get a quality education, no matter what school they attend.

In other words, vouchers are good because they let under-privileged children get out of low-performing schools and attend higher quality schools.  It is a matter of equality of opportunity.  Undoubtedly this is true and one of the primary reasons to support school choice.

But it suggests that if we could wave a magic wand and just fix the failing urban public schools – the “drop-out factories” as they are sometimes called – then we would not need school choice.  Some would advocate for such a course of action, despite the enormous challenges to school turnaround policy and programs and their history of being expensive and ineffective.  Yet even if it were a successful strategy and we suddenly transformed drop-out factories into high quality schools, there would still be other compelling reasons for school choice.  And Matt points to an important one:

Redressing a wrong (i.e., that some parents have no say in what school their child attends) is always worthwhile and must remain the primary focus.

Matt’s comment suggests that the injustice is not only that hundreds of thousands of low-income minority children are relegated to failing schools, but that their parents are denied the right to exercise a choice in the matter.  The reality of the situation is that middle and upper income families have school choice.  They can choose to move to a different school district or pay tuition to send their children to a private school.  Because of economic constraints, low-income families do not have choice.  They are legally forced to send their children to a school that is assigned to them based upon where they live.  Now, this injustice is doubly offensive because those schools are often dangerous places that dramatically fail to educate their children.  But the very fact that parents are denied a choice is an injustice.  Parents deserve to have a voice in where their children send their kids to school.  The State is not the primary care-taker of my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and the State will not decide where she must go to school when the time comes.  My wife and I are her parents, the primary educators and caregivers of our daughter, and we will make this profoundly important decision based upon what we think is best for her.  To deny educational choice is not only to deny access to a quality education, it is to deny the dignity of parents as the caregivers of their children.  The principle of subsidiarity from Catholic social teaching is the basis from which the Church advocates for leaving this responsibility in the hands of parents, and not denying it based-upon economic background.

Yet even this fails to provide us with the full picture.  Charter schools provide real choice and options for parents.  They are an important innovation and reform to the American education system, and are one valuable source of choice and educational innovation.  However, only supporting a policy of charter schools or public school choice is not enough. To quote Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to Catholic Educators in America:

No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.

It is not just equality of educational opportunity and recognizing the dignity of parents and giving them due responsibility for their children’s education.  Fundamentally, authentic parental choice is a matter of religious liberty.  Without authentic parental choice that is open to all forms of schooling, including faith-based and private schools, there is still an injustice that Catholics must oppose.  If we opened charter schools and public school choice and turned around all of the failing urban public schools, poor children would still be denied the opportunity to have their souls nurtured through a faith-based education.  It is the noble aim of the U.S. Constitution to protect the religious liberty of the people.  For many parents, providing an education infused with faith, a moral foundation, alignment with the values taught in the home, and a sense of broader meaning in knowledge and life, is of fundamental importance and is a way of exercising religious conviction.  We must protect this free-exercise of religious conviction, for parents but fundamentally for children.  To do anything less is to deny some children the right to an education in faith.

These are the reasons that the Church and Catholics support parental choice, and why many thoughtful and civic minded Americans support it too.

The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program has received quite a bit of attention these past few weeks, and with good reason.  National experts indicate that it marks the most successful first year implementation in the history of the parental choice movement.  One aspect of the voucher program that has drawn attention of late is the high number of students enrolling in religious schools, particularly Catholic schools.  Although details on the final numbers are still a little murky, roughly 2,500 students in Indiana will attend a Catholic school this year on a Choice Scholarship.  For supporters of school choice, the level of participation in such a short time frame demonstrates an undeniable success.  For supporters of Catholic schools, the increase in enrollment comes as welcome news at a time when many Catholic schools are closing.  And for individuals who fall into both categories – proponents of school choice and advocates for Catholic schools – there is a temptation to link the two interests, identifying school choice as a panacea that can “save Catholic schools.”  As Scott Alessi’s post rightfully notes, though, it is important that our priorities are in line.

School choice is not merely a means to an end for Catholic schools.  School choice in and of itself represents an opportunity to address a social injustice, as more families are empowered with the opportunity to send their children to the school they desire.  Those who believe in the value of a Catholic education are certainly right in hoping that more parents would then choose to send their kids to a Catholic school.  Nevertheless, school choice is worthy of support even if not a single family chose to enroll their children in Catholic schools.  Redressing a wrong (i.e., that some parents have no say in what school their child attends) is always worthwhile and must remain the primary focus.  That Catholic schools will have more students is an encouraging, but secondary, consequence.

Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele issued his ruling Monday afternoon to deny a temporary injunction that would have halted Indiana’s recently enacted Choice Scholarship Program.  The program provides vouchers to families who meet income eligibility guidelines and wish to transfer their child from a public to private school.  Opponents of the Choice Scholarship Program claimed that the legislation violates Indiana’s state constitution, contending that the state would effectively be providing public money to religious institutions.  In his ruling, Judge Keele noted that the public funds are directed to religious schools only upon the “private individual choices of parents.”  Because the eligible families are the agents in determining where the vouchers are used – whether at religious or non-religious private schools – the judge held that the law is “religion-neutral.”

This ruling is a huge (even if anticipated) victory for school choice supporters throughout Indiana, particularly for the families who have been empowered with greater choice.  By the time the application deadline for a Choice Scholarship passes, more than 3,000 students will be enrolled in the program.

This school year marks the first opportunity for parents who meet income eligibility levels to apply for an Indiana Choice Scholarship for their children.  According to a WNDU story, more than 1,300 students had been accepted into the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program by the end of last week.  The article reports that roughly 470 of the students will attend Catholic schools in the Fort Wayne South Bend diocese (that number is now, at the time of this writing, up to 550).  To read the full WNDU story, click here: Vouchers spark 40% enrollment increase at Our Lady.

To some, 1,300 hundred students may not seem like a high number, given that the statewide limit on Choice Scholarships is 7,500 this year.  (The cap for next year is 15,000, and there is no cap in future years.)  In actuality, this number marks an undeniable success.  The rules and regulations for the voucher legislation were not released until the second week of July, families and schools a brief window to begin the application process.  Changing schools no doubt requires some level of adjustment for not only the students but the families as well.  In many cases, families were making the decision of whether to apply for a Choice Scholarship at a time of year when school enrollment has normally already been long decided.  One can reasonably assume that the uncertainty surrounding this new process may have caused some families to delay the decision until next year; this has in fact been observed in other states in the first year following enactment of choice legislation.  While the cap of 7,500 may not have been reached, that more than 1,300 students’ families have taken advantage of greater choice is a cause for celebration.

Three weeks ago, Wisconsin Representative Bob Turner (D-Racine) submitted a Letter to the Editor describing his opposition to expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).  To someone unfamiliar with school choice, this letter could be confusing or, even worse, misleading.  He does note that “parental involvement is the key to our students’ educational achievement,” a statement with which few would argue.  Curiously, he opposes vouchers, even though a district’s participation in a voucher program would necessarily increase parental involvement. Turner argues against the MPCP because “the standards for participating voucher schools are minimal. They may employ teachers with no training and only a GED, and administrators without a high school or college degree.” If the schools are so bad – filled with incompetent and unqualified teachers and administrators – no parents with the ability to choose their children’s schools, as vouchers would give them, would send their children there, so what’s to fear?    Opposition to the voucher program on these grounds reflects a complete lack of confidence in parents’ ability to make the right choice on behalf of their children.  No one has a greater interest in holding schools accountable than parents.   Rep. Turner claims that parental involvement is the key to success, yet he doesn’t want them to have the opportunity to decide where their children go to school.

In explaining another reason for his opposition, Turner claims, “The current pending state budget bill, 2011-13 Senate Bill 27, will expand the Milwaukee parental choice program to all school districts in Milwaukee County.  This will have the effect of more affluent families taking advantage of this program so that their children can attend a school that hand picks the best students possible and limits, or does not accept, any special needs students.”  (Emphasis is my own.)  This statement is particularly troubling, as it 1) inaccurately characterizes access to vouchers and 2) misleads people into thinking that the wealthy and not the intended beneficiaries of vouchers, namely poor families, will benefit most.  In actuality, for families to take advantage of the program, they have to qualify for a voucher; to qualify for a voucher, a family must fall below a certain income level.  Even with the income eligibility raised to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (~ $68,000 for a family of four), affluent families – ones who by definition have an abundance of money, goods, property, etc. – will simply not qualify.  A family income of $68,000 a year is nothing to scoff at, but it should not be confused with affluence.  Many more families than before will directly benefit from the expansion of the voucher program…just not affluent ones.

He also calls into question the success of voucher programs, boldly claiming that “the results of the testing [Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination] showed that voucher students scored the same or worse as students attending a Milwaukee public school.”  With no reference to where he obtained this information, one has reason to be skeptical.  (Side note: critiquing the efficacy of a voucher program simply by comparing all voucher students to students attending a Milwaukee public school is misguided and does not account for other factors at play.  Students who take advantage of vouchers are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and therefore they would be expected to initially score at lower levels than public school students – a group that would include both disadvantaged students and ones who come from families of greater means.)  As it turns out, research conducted by John Witte and Patrick Wolfe demonstrates that – after looking at carefully matched sets of students in the choice program and in Milwaukee public schools – the MPCP has been successful.  Among the findings were the following:

  1. Competitive pressure from the voucher program has produced modest achievement gains in MPS
  2. The three-year achievement gains of choice students have been comparable to those of our matched sample of MPS students
  3. High school students in the choice program both graduate and enroll in four-year colleges at a higher rate than do similar students in MPS

The claims that voucher programs are not producing academic benefits are simply not accurate.

Lastly, Rep. Turner writes, “With the Racine Unified School District receiving the second largest projected budget cut in the state, over $11 million in school aid and over $40 million in revenue reduction, we cannot allow additional voucher schools to be started in Racine.”  He makes the not-so-subtle suggestion (given his intentional bolding of the figures) that the voucher program will cost the state money at a time when money is already hard to come by.  As it turns out, the Milwaukee Choice Program saved the state of Wisconsin an estimated $52 million in Fiscal Year 2001.  If anything, given the financial benefits Wisconsin could receive, the numbers Turner provides offer economic justification to an issue where the moral justification (giving disadvantaged children increased access to more schools) already suffices.

Voucher legislation is simply messy.  From building support for vouchers to withstanding legal challenges, the process is simply not a smooth one.  Then again, because vouchers will increase school options for the disadvantaged, I suppose this is no surprise.  In reality, when is combating injustice ever easy?

This article details the “messiness” of voucher legislation in PA, while this one discusses the legal challenges a Colorado voucher program in Douglas County faces.