Check Out PBS NewsHour’s Fine Report on School Vouchers

On Tuesday night, the PBS NewsHour in collaboration with Education Week reporter Lisa Stark aired a short and almost perfectly framed piece on Indiana’s school voucher program. Vice President Mike Pence, who is responsible for the rapid growth of Indiana school vouchers, is, like the new education secretary Betsy DeVos, an avid champion of parents’ freedom to choose their children’s schools.

In her report, Stark captures the church-state issues by contrasting a public school, Fairfield Elementary School, with Emmaus Lutheran School, both in Fort Wayne. Vouchers and tax credits across the states fund primarily religious schools where the tuition is low enough to be offset by a modest voucher. The U.S. Supreme Court—in the controversial 2002, Zellman v. Simmons-Harris decision—found vouchers to be legal under the U.S. Constitution, though some state constitutions ban the expenditure of public dollars in religious schools. (This blog covered the church-state, First Amendment issues here.)

The most devastating impact of vouchers and tax credit programs, however, is to create a separate system that devours state public school budgets. Stark is clear from the outset: “At the heart of the debate (is) money, and how education dollars are divvied up.  Normally, the state distributes tax dollars to public schools to educate students. In Indiana, that’s about $5,800 per student. Vouchers change that. A portion of the money, the tax dollars, follow the student instead, allowing parents to use those dollars to pay tuition at the private school of their choice.”

Stark shows video footage of two nurturing, high-quality schools—a public school and Lutheran school, and she interviews their principals to learn about how the rapid growth of vouchers has affected each school. She also interviews Robert Enlow, the president of a national lobbying organization: EdChoice. Here is the background on EdCoice that Stark can’t cover in her short piece. EdChoice is today’s name for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the foundation started by Chicago free-market economist, Milton Friedman. Standford University professor, Martin Carnoy recently described Friedman’s role in promoting vouchers in a paper for the Economic Policy Institute: “As originally conceived by Milton Friedman (1955), the purpose of vouchers is to break the ‘monopoly’ of public schooling and extend families’ school choices for their children to include private education. Friedman, and voucher advocates more generally, argue that an education market that includes private schools competing on a financially level playing field with public schools, can deliver schooling more cheaply and satisfy consumer needs more effectively because private education is more efficient than public.” EdChoice’s Robert Enlow is introduced by Lisa Stark as an advocate, and advocate he does—beginning with this non sequitur: “We have seen over time our traditional school systems, because they’re based on zip code assignment and where you live, not providing always the best options for families.”

Stark also interviews Fort Wayne’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Wendy Robinson, who clarifies that the explosive growth of the voucher program in Indiana has not been neutral in its impact on the public schools: “If they took every student, if they were responsible for special ed, if they took ELL, if they were not allowed to pick and choose which kids they took, bring it on.” “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.”

In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post filled in more of the background that Stark couldn’t cover in a short piece for the NewsHour:  “Indiana’s legislature first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year. ‘Public schools will get first shot at every child,’ then Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said at the time. ‘If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.'”  Pence was elected governor in 2012, and, “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.  By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system.”

Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago on new data just released from the state. The number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

In January, Valerie Strauss published a column by Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s state school superintendent until she was defeated in last November’s election. Ritz summarizes how deeply implicated key members of the Trump administration are in a commitment to expand the ideology of the former Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice: “Indiana’s school choice program started under a prior governor as a small pilot, tailored to poor families that did not believe public schools were providing their children with an adequate education. Gov. Pence, however, escalated this program into a de facto entitlement for middle-upper-class families, pulling millions of dollars from our poorest schools so that these more affluent families could subsidize a private school education for their kids. Betsy DeVos wants to expand these voucher programs to as many states as possible. Pence likes to claim that Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. What he does not like to admit is that in five years of this program, Indiana’s taxpayers have sent more than $345 million to religious schools with little to no state oversight or regulation. These taxpayer dollars would have otherwise funded public education in our state.”

Here is what Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s school superintendent tells Lisa Stark in Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour interview: “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”  Please do watch this short piece on Indiana’s school voucher program.

5 thoughts on “Check Out PBS NewsHour’s Fine Report on School Vouchers

  1. Saw this piece and, as usual, was impressed with the even-handed way PBS handled the issues. Perhaps reflecting my own bias, I wished they had explored more thoroughly the church-state conflict. Your additions to the PBS piece do a great job of highlighting that issue.

  2. Thanks, Jan, for highlighting this brief PBS segment on the undermining of public education in Indiana by way of vouchers. Mike Pence as governor (and Mitch Daniels previously) created the public subsidy model for private and religious schools (while actively de-funding public education.)
    In a world of infinite public dollars or in a world that did not have segregation, Jim Crow, and slavery (and its correlates: massive incarceration) as its history and legacy, we might be able to talk about education that allows a range of options.
    But in the practical world of politics and possibility, only an insidious force would follow this course that is destroying and undermining the financing of public education.
    It is not unlike what we are seeing right now in new health care legislation.
    How has public discourse and discussion come to such a sorry place?
    It was quite awful w Arne Duncan (in the Obama administration). Now we have the much worse.
    I see this as the consequences of our inability to understand politics, engage in sustained civic discourse. We are possessed by too many things: work, family, and all the distractions that follow in a consumer capitalist culture, that we are left treading water, not challenging policies in any sustained way and developing the alternatives.
    We have accidental (and not so accidental) waves of disaster … the 45th president, the republican congress … all accidents and orchestrated strategies to set the stage for running government and institutions (into the ground).
    But it seems to me one cannot really have meaningful policy or public discourse among 330 million people. It’s too big for democracy. Scale is not irrelevant in these matters.

  3. “If they took every student, if they were responsible for special ed, if they took ELL, if they were not allowed to pick and choose which kids they took, bring it on.” “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.”

    Yes, exactly this. And I agree. The private schools are allowed to cherry-pick their students, and get rid of any students who cause them problems, bumping those kids back to the public schools.
    (And I’m sure that at least some of the parents who use vouchers are thrilled by the fact that their kids won’t have to go to school and rub shoulders with “those kids.”)
    In the meantime, as the public schools receive less and less funding, there are fewer and fewer resources available to the public schools. What happens if this goes to its ultimate conclusion? All kids with no problems get to go to private, or charter, schools, and the kids left in the public schools are all the so-called “unacceptable” kids? ELL’s, special needs kids, children with behavioral problems, that the public schools have vanishing resources to deal with? Is this what our country is about? Throw these children under the bus?

  4. Indiana gives us a “glimpse” of what is coming in the future of publicly-financed education. Good. The participants in school choice, are obviously delighted with the results. I do not understand the “bitching” of the public schools. Public schools are already required to take the handicapped, learning-disabled, English-challenged, etc. etc. When more children leave the public schools, the public schools will still have to take the handicapped, learning-disabled, English-challenged,etc. Get over it.

    • It’s going to take more than your supercilious comment to make the public schools “get over it,” Chuckie. You are actually talking about children with special needs.
      What you seem to envision, or apparently even desire, is segregated schools- segregated into schools for the handicapped, behavioral problems, and those lacking English fluency, while all the rest of the kids get to go to private and charter schools, where they and their parents needn’t be “bothered” by “those” children who are difficult to teach.
      Yes, the public schools must take them, and the private schools (with a very few specialized exceptions) do not. But as more and more taxpayer money is funneled to the private and charter schools, less and less is available for the neediest children left in the public schools. It costs more to educate these children and provide the additional supports they need, not less.
      I feel sorry for you, Chuckie, that you are so lacking in human empathy.

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