Lessons learned from the Choice Scholarships Annual Report

Six years in and counting, the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program has reached a point where those in favor of honest dialogue can look at the same set of facts to make conclusions. The recent release of the program’s annual report by the Indiana Department of Education offers opportunity to do just that.

The latest report, the first under the administration of new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick was released last month with a whimper, a far cry from the most recent such Indiana Department of Education report under McCormicks’ predecessor, Glenda Ritz, a vocal opponent of the 2011 law.

And while indicators are that McCormick is no fan particularly of the state’s voucher program, the report and its release provides a less biased, objective voice of the program’s growth, allowing sheer numbers to tell the story. When considering school choice in the broadest sense, the report further confirms the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, coupled with charters and other options, have resulted in marked growth and participation of students utilizing choice options, with a slight decline for traditional public schools, though at just over 88 percent the traditional system remains overwhelming the option of first resort.  

From strictly a financial standpoint, voucher advocates may take away that on the whole, the 34,000 plus students  utilizing these scholarships in 313 private Indiana schools this school year have actually saved the state dollars of approximately $68 million if these same students were enrolled in a traditional public institution.

However, various findings from the DOE Office of Finance generated report also give some fodder to those for whom K-12 school aged vouchers will never be an acceptable choice. Most notably, the 2016-2017 school year demonstrates a clearer downward trendline of students that have previously attended a public school, a contentious component that was essential for the program’s legislative passage.

What also bears out is that with the broad expansion of enrollment pathways and income eligibility, the diversity of scholarship redeeming families has also increased over the life of this program; a double edged sword depending on one’s position for more means tested versus universal participation.  

For example, when the Scholarship program was introduced only income eligible students that either attended a public school or had previously received tuition support through a recognized Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO) would gain eligibility. Today the seven pathways for eligibility has resulted in broader avenues for participation, though at 73 percent students continuing their choice options indicates family satisfaction in their ability to exercise this option.  This further bears out as the numbers demonstrate that over 95% of Choice Scholarship students completed a full school year at the Choice school in each of the past two years of the program.

So once families gain these vouchers, whether at 90 % or at 50 % of support, there’s little going back. And, while there is an uptick of families on the higher income ladder, 17 percent of this year’s recipients received scholarships have household incomes above $75,000, the median scholarship receiving household does not reflect the total departure that alarmists would suggest. In fact, the average household size and income for these families is 4.71 at $48,563, or roughly 150 % of federal poverty guidelines.

Still, where voucher advocates can raise concern is not the growth of those with greater household incomes gaining access, it lies in some flattening to a slight decrease in percentage of those on the lowest end of the economic rung. Additionally, from a racial demographic, Black students were the only group that saw a slight decline in total number and percentage of scholarship receiving students during the current school year. Unfortunately, these data tell who, but for this quandary it does not explain the why.

Admittedly, much work remains as the state navigates the true impact of the state’s Scholarship program directly to students and to Indiana Education as a whole. What is refreshing however, is that the numbers carry no bias. And that is the basis from which honest conversation can occur.

Copies of the Department of Education report can be found online, http://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/choice/2016-2017-choice-scholarship-program-report-feb24-final.pdf