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EDITORIAL: Research vouchers to assess value

Put any expansion on pause

March 25, 2017

Education policy leaders are eyeing Indiana’s private-school voucher program—the broadest such system in the country—as the Trump administration ponders whether to implement a similar program nationwide.

The problem is, we just don’t have much to tell them.

Yes, Indiana gives vouchers to more kids than any other state. As IBJ’s Hayleigh Colombo reports this week, the state expects this year to spend $146 million to subsidize private-school tuition for more than 34,000 students.

But officials can’t say whether that’s a wise invest ment.

In fact, the state has not even established benchmarks that could be used to measure whether the program is a success.

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It’s certainly popular. The number of students using vouchers has increased every year since the program’s launch in 2011. The rate of growth has slowed in the last couple of years, but that’s attributed more to private-school capacity than to any disinterest in the program.

But whether those students who attend private schools on a voucher are getting a better education remains a question. And whether those left behind at public schools are harmed by the changes is another.

As Colombo reports, a 2015 review of the national research on ongoing voucher programs from the National Bureau of Economic Research found “the evidence does not suggest that awarding students a voucher is a systematically reliable way to improve their educational outcomes.”

That’s important. There’s no doubt some students thrive in the private-school environment. But the question for state lawmakers is whether the voucher program—or any education program—is helping students achieve better as a whole.

Put another way: Are our communities and our society better off for the way the state is spending taxpayers’ money on schools? That is a question that has not yet been answered, in part because Republicans who created the program haven’t sought to find out. They rely largely on their gut and anecdotal evidence to reinforce their beliefs that vouchers must be good for kids.

Yet many of those same Republicans have been far more skeptical about the impact of state-funded pre-kindergarten—despite a significantly greater call for an expansion of that program (and far more research to measure its impact).

We think healthy skepticism is appropriate in both cases.

The state should certainly experiment. It should seek out programs that could help students achieve. And when officials identify what works—through appropriate research and study—they should find ways to fund program expansions.

That’s not what’s happening with vouchers now.

We are heartened that newly elected state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick—a Republican and voucher supporter—is urging a pause on further expansion until additional studies of the program are completed.

“We owe it to the country to analyze the data,” she says.

We think she’s right. And we call on the Legislature to heed her call.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

 

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