With School Vouchers, Who Benefits And Who's Left Behind? Indiana's Program Offers Lessons : NPR Ed Indiana's private school voucher program is the largest of its kind in the U.S. Whether it's "social justice" or "an assault" on public schools depends on whom you ask.
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The Promise And Peril Of School Vouchers

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The Promise And Peril Of School Vouchers

The Promise And Peril Of School Vouchers

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President Donald Trump has called education the, quote, "civil rights issue of our time." And he believes school choice can level the playing field.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children.


MARTIN: One way to give parents more choices is with something called a private school voucher. This week, the NPR Ed team is going to explore this big controversial idea, and they're going to do it by taking us to three states that already use vouchers. Joining us to kick things off is Cory Turner from the NPR Ed team.

Hey, Cory.


MARTIN: Let's start with a primer. Remind us how vouchers work.

TURNER: Sure. So a traditional voucher program lets families take the money that a state would have otherwise spent on their child in a public school and then spend it in the private school of their choice. And this idea, as we said, is controversial really for two big reasons. First, in most traditional voucher programs, they're taking money away from public schools - and second, because parents can not only spend that money in private schools but also private religious schools.

MARTIN: So vouchers have been in the courts a lot over the years. Where do they stand legally?

TURNER: Yeah, so Rachel, back in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court looked specifically at an old program in Ohio. And in a 5-4 split, the court said that that program is constitutional because it wasn't the government spending money in religious schools. It was parents choosing to spend money in religious schools.

Now, we should also say, though, that most states still have what are known as Blaine Amendments, and these expressly prohibit spending public dollars in private religious schools. And that's one reason why we only see traditional voucher programs in roughly 15 states, plus Washington, D.C.

MARTIN: So where are you going to take us today?

TURNER: Well, I'm going to take you, today, to the largest single statewide voucher program in the country - Indiana. Although, I'm not taking you alone. I got a big assist from two of our member station reporter friends, Eric Weddle and Peter Balonon-Rosen. This program in Indiana serves 34,000 students. And I want to play my story now starting with a cut of tape from 2011. Here's then-Governor Mitch Daniels after he signed the state's voucher bill into law.


MITCH DANIELS: It means social justice has come to Indiana education.

TURNER: Now, when you talk to voucher supporters in Indiana, you hear those two words - social justice - a lot.

ROBERT BEHNING: School choice is a social justice issue of our time.

TURNER: That's Republican State Representative Robert Behning. He's the architect of Indiana's voucher law. And it's not just the politicians.

CHUCK WEISENBACH: It is one of the greatest social justice issues our country's facing and has faced.

TURNER: Chuck Weisenbach is principal at a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. So the argument goes, vouchers are a way to help low-income parents get their children out of underperforming public schools - parents like Pauline Massy.

PAULINE MASSY: You could have dreamt of this opportunity but just never have it, right?

TURNER: Massy is a single mother who lives in an apartment on the outskirts of Indianapolis.

MASSY: If you're telling a kid, always have goals, that's what Providence did.

TURNER: Providence is Providence Cristo Rey, a private Catholic school near downtown Indianapolis. Three years ago, Pauline's daughter, Kayla, was in public middle school. She wanted to attend the nearby public high school with her friends, but Pauline knew that school had gotten a low rating from the state. And it serves 2,300 students.

Providence Cristo Rey, on the other hand, is much smaller and better rated. When officials told Pauline that, thanks in part to the state voucher, Kayla could attend for $20 a month, she was sold. At first, it was hard for Kayla, who's now 16. She has to get up really early.

KAYLA: My first alarm goes off at 5:30.

TURNER: See, Providence Cristo Rey is an hour bus ride away. To make sure she gets out on time, Kayla sets six alarms.

KAYLA: And then 6:10 is my mom's phone call.

TURNER: So you're at work already?

KAYLA: No, she's in the other room.

MASSY: (Laughter).

KAYLA: So 6:10 is her phone call to be like, now you really have to get up because it's 6:10.

TURNER: Kayla is studying business, a self-described lover of numbers. Now a junior, she gushes about her Catholic school, even though she and her mother aren't Catholic.

KAYLA: I didn't think I would like a small school, but I like how everyone knows everybody. You're more able to relate to somebody.

TURNER: For Kayla and Pauline, vouchers gave them access to something better. Voucher advocates would call that social justice. Two hours north, in Fort Wayne, Wendy Robinson has a different word for the program.

WENDY ROBINSON: I saw it as an assault on public education.

TURNER: Robinson is superintendent of Indiana's largest school district. This year, the state spent $20 million on vouchers for Fort Wayne students, more than any other district. But her side of the story might surprise you.

ROBINSON: We're not losing kids from our school. We're now just having the state pay for kids who were never going to come here anyway.

TURNER: To understand what she means, we need actually go back a few years, to March, 2013.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I welcome the unanimous decision by the Indiana Supreme Court to uphold our school choice program.

TURNER: That's then-Governor, now Vice President Mike Pence after Indiana Supreme Court found the voucher program constitutional. Now, here's the important part - when Pence said that he and lawmakers would look for...


PENCE: Responsible ways to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families.

TURNER: ...Expand is an understatement. Pence and lawmakers took this small social justice program for low-income kids, and they blew the doors off it. Enrollment had a cap. They lifted it. They also expanded income limits and made it much easier for students to receive a private school voucher without ever trying a public school. Soon after, the program more than doubled. Since then, says Representative Behning...

BEHNING: It's actually grown almost exponentially.

TURNER: And that growth has brought change. In 2011, that first year, most voucher students had attended public school - 90 percent. This year, fewer than half have ever been to public school. Now Superintendent Robinson's line should make a little more sense.

ROBINSON: We're now just having the state pay for kids who were never going to come here anyway.

TURNER: While the voucher program still serves low-income kids, a third no longer qualify for reduced-price lunch. Data show that voucher students are also increasingly white, suburban and middle-class. What's more, roughly 40 percent of all private school students in Indiana now get vouchers at a cost of nearly $150 million this year. Does that bother Representative Behning?

BEHNING: It doesn't bother me. I mean, the intent of the program was to give parents choice.

TURNER: But it does bother the state's new superintendent of schools.

JENNIFER MCCORMICK: It should make all of us nervous.

TURNER: Like Behning, Jennifer McCormick is a Republican, but their backgrounds are very different. Behning owned a small business for years. McCormick used to be a public school teacher.

MCCORMICK: How many choices do we need before all of us are trying to fight for that same pot of money and none of us are doing a lot very well because that money is getting tighter and tighter?

TURNER: Now, McCormick says, it's time to review the voucher program and see if it's providing the social justice it was meant to. Cory Turner, NPR News.

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