What to Make of the Indiana Choice Program Report

I fully believe authentic advocates of quality educational options can be compelled to challenge their own thinking toward school choice where evidence is conclusive either way.

I find it hard to believe that even the staunchest opponent of school choice would begrudge underserved families for accessing these options if gains were demonstrated through hard empirical data, complemented with evidence such as parent testimonials of satisfaction and overall school performance.

In this era of “alternative facts,” where truth too often has become a matter of perception, these data are what we must seek out and be prepared to reconcile both for and against our positions.  If we can’t see the truth for our children, we’re lost.

As a firm believer in school choice as a fundamental American right, I welcome data that helps inform my position. I recognize equally that in this state where educational options and initiatives designed to allow for greater choice proliferate, the true measure of overall effectiveness remains a moving target, especially where our most severely underserved students are applied.

This is the case with the state’s still young Choice Scholarship Program. With the recent release of the first study of the academic impacts of Indiana’s Choice program, authors R. Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends, Professors at the University of Kentucky and Notre Dame respectively, examine the program’s impact on voucher recipients in upper elementary and middle school during the 2011-12 through 2014-15 school years, utilizing longitudinal assessment data to guide analysis of impact. It should be noted the study is presently under peer review.

The report provides enough ammunition for each opposing side to make their cases in defense of their views toward the nation’s largest voucher program. For example, while the study indicated voucher receiving students make no academic gains, and in fact losing ground in mathematics, over time they appear to pace or outperform their peers in English/language arts when remaining in the private school of choice over time. The E/LA gains are particularly evident among students attending Catholic schools.

Where similar voucher studies are applied, the Indiana study appears consistent with the trend of scholarship receiving students struggling the most in their first years of participation, then appearing to catch up and outperform in some areas.

If there is a consensus, it is that more information and examination is needed to make the case of the program’s true viability once and for all. To do so means more time is needed as well. For the 34,000 plus students and counting that will continue to exercise this choice during the coming school year, time is all these families can request.

Click here to read the report, “The Impact of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program: Achievement Effects for Students in Upper Elementary and Middle School.”