The first major study of Indiana’s voucher program might not change much for the state’s strong pro-school choice legislature

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

The results of the first study of Indiana’s voucher program are in, but while interest in school choice research is growing across the country, it’s not clear the study will actually affect what’s happening in Indiana.

Republican leaders in the legislature spearheaded the program back in 2011, and since then, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize private school tuition — all without much hard evidence that vouchers lead to Indiana students doing better in school. That’s at odds with how the Indiana General Assembly has handled a much smaller investment in preschool for poor children, requiring a state-sponsored study as soon as the program began.

Read: Lawmakers want more research before they spend big on preschool. When it comes to vouchers, there’s no such hesitation

And although lawmakers haven’t made significant steps to expand the voucher program since income limits were loosened in 2013, they’ve continued to fund it at high levels and make small tweaks along the way.

The University of Notre Dame voucher study results themselves are middling: Students showed initial declines in math, with improvement later on. Test scores in English improved by a marginal amount over four years, a change the researchers deemed not “statistically meaningful.”

Joel Hand, a lobbyist for the Indiana Coalition of Public Education and longtime voucher critic, said he’s not surprised. Once held up as a way for kids to escape failing schools, voucher rhetoric nowadays has shed that aspect to focus squarely on the value of parental choice.

“The proponents of the voucher program told everyone that this was about making academic progress for one, and saving the state money,” Hand said. “Now here were are in 2017, six years later, and we see it has not saved money, it has cost the state millions of dollars,” and we see that academic progress has not been made.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who authored the original voucher bill, didn’t have a strong answer for whether the study would change how he and fellow lawmakers have pushed voucher policy. It seems like the results do little more than affirm what GOP lawmakers already believe to be true.

“Overall I think it’s positive for the voucher program in Indiana,” said Behning, who is chairman of the House Education Committee. “I don’t know how anybody, if you read the data, wouldn’t think it’s somewhat affirming that the longer you’re in the system the better you’re performing …  I’m sure there will be discussions on it on both sides.”

Early on, Indiana education officials abandoned an opportunity to work with researchers from Indiana University and study how vouchers affect students. The effort wasn’t picked back up when then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett left office.

Voucher growth might be slowing in the state, but politically, Indiana is still primed to continue as a stronghold for choice-based reform.

Republicans winning an overwhelming majority of seats in the House in 2012 was a boon to school choice advocates, as many of the new proposals put forward can now essentially move ahead unimpeded by lawmakers who do not support vouchers. Today, the GOP still retains that level of control of the House and Senate, as well as a Republican governor.

Little by little, the program has widened.

Indeed, in 2016, lawmakers passed a measure that would allow students to use a voucher if they started school during the second semester, instead of just the first. And this year, lawmakers passed measures that would allow kids to take classes outside public school one at a time, including with private providers.

Read: A new test, $22 million for preschool and 5 other major education bills that lawmakers approved in 2017

Lawmakers this year also loosened regulations on how long private schools must wait for vouchers as they pursue state accreditation, and they gave private schools the chance to appeal D or F grades with the Indiana State Board of Education so they could continue accepting new voucher students.

Controversial voucher language was also added to the preschool expansion bill passed this spring, offering another pathway to state dollars in kindergarten if a family participates in the state pilot program for preschool.

The absence of a definitive voucher study hasn’t halted moves to expand Indiana’s existing voucher program. But it’s not clear how much farther Indiana can wade into the school choice waters unless it seriously re-examines its existing programs — more radical voucher-like programs such as education savings accounts have been been introduced, but so far have failed to move forward.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, a key player in getting the law passed in 2011, said earlier this year that he’s uncertain about what an ESA could provide to a state that already has a “strong” choice program.

“Even advocates of ESAs have privately told me we’re not exactly sure, so I need to hear more to be convinced that it is the right choice for Indiana,” Bosma said. “If we didn’t have these other school choice measures targeting families already, there’s no doubt it would have a large benefit … I’m uncertain that ESAs add a very strong element that doesn’t already exist.”

At the end of the day, Indiana voucher supporters in the state legislature have the political will and means to expand the program as they see fit — and research doesn’t seem to factor much into the equation.

Chalkbeat reporter Hafsa Razi contributed to this report.



Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.