Indiana OKs broad voucher bill

The nation’s most sweeping school voucher program — with tuition aid for low- and middle-income families — is now law in Indiana. Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the bill today, along with another bill expanding charter schools.

Parents can choose to use vouchers at private schools that accept state regulation, including religious schools. As family income rises to $60,000 for a family of four, the voucher’s value will go down.

Other voucher systems across the country are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools.

Indiana’s program would be open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools. Indiana’s program will be limited to just 7,500 students for the first year and 15,000 in the second, a fraction of the state’s about 1 million students. But within three years, there will be no limit on the number of children who could enroll.

Indiana will save money on voucher students: Vouchers for elementary and middle school students are capped at $4,500 and no voucher will equal funding for public-school students.

According to Rick Hess, 60 percent of Indiana schoolchildren will be eligible for a voucher worth up to 90 percent of public education costs. The student must attend a year of public school to qualify for a voucher.

The bill also gives a $1,000 tax deduction for private-school tuition or the costs of homeschooling. That’s expected to cut revenues by $3 million.

While most choice advocates are celebrating, Cato’s Adam Schaeffer argues the law is a “strategic defeat for educational freedom” because it greatly expands state regulation of participating private schools.

To qualify for vouchers, schools will have to administer state exams and submit data on students’ progress, admit students by lottery and “provide good citizenship instruction” that stresses respecting authority, the property of others, the student’s parents and home, the student’s self and “the rights of others to have their own views and religious beliefs.”

What does this mean for religious private schools teaching that one can only be saved by belief in Jesus Christ?

Private schools that refuse to be regulated will risk losing most of their students,   Schaeffer writes.

Competition improves public schools

Threatened with losing students to private schools, Florida public schools improved, concludes a Northwestern study by David Figlio and Cassandra Hart.

Starting in 2002, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) has provided funding to help low-income parents pay for private school.  Corporations donate money to fund the scholarships in exchange for a tax credit.

The scholarship is quite generous; it covers approximately 90 percent of tuition and fees at a typical religious elementary school in Florida and two-thirds of tuition and fees at a typical religious high school. As a result, the program greatly increased the accessibility of private schools to low-income families. In the first year, some 15,585 scholarships were awarded, increasing the number of low-income students attending private schools by more than 50 percent. For the 2009–10 school year, the FTC program awarded scholarships to 28,927 students.

Public schools located near private schools increased reading and math scores more than public schools that had little competition.

For every 1.1 miles closer to the nearest private school, public school math and reading performance increases by 1.5 percent of a standard deviation in the first year following the announcement of the scholarship program. Likewise, having 12 additional private schools nearby boosts public school test scores by almost 3 percent of a standard deviation. The presence of two additional types of private schools nearby raises test scores by about 2 percent of a standard deviation. Finally, an increase of one standard deviation in the concentration of private schools nearby is associated with an increase of about 1 percent of a standard deviation in test scores.

Test scores rose more for elementary and middle schools than for high schools, perhaps because the scholarship made K-8 private schools affordable but didn’t cover as much of the tuition at private high schools.