Future of Schools

Indiana poised to pass Wisconsin as national No. 1 for vouchers

Students using vouchers and from charter schools attended a rally for school choice at the Statehouse in February.

This could be the year that Indiana eclipses Wisconsin for the most general education students attending private schools using publicly funded tuition vouchers.

When it launched in 2011, Indiana’s voucher program had the broadest eligibility requirements in the nation and it grew quickly: from about 4,000 the first year to 9,000 the second year and 20,000 the third year. Last year, the program served about 29,100 students using vouchers to attend private schools.

The pro-voucher Institute for Quality Education reported last week that information it obtained from the Indiana Department of Education showed 32,955 students applied to use vouchers this year, which would be a gain of more than 3,800, or about 13 percent.

Final voucher numbers for 2014-15 weren’t released until February but they tracked very closely to the number of students who applied the prior summer. So it’s likely the final number of students using vouchers will be close to 33,000.

Indiana’s voucher program, has grown at lightning speed and fell just short of passing Wisconsin last year as the largest voucher program for general education students in the country. Wisconsin had 29,609 students using vouchers. New numbers for that state aren’t yet available for the current school year.

From the very beginning, the voucher program in Indiana allowed qualifying students anywhere in the state to access tax dollars that had been set aside for their public school educations and use the money to pay private school tuition. Vouchers in Indiana are not restricted to just students who live in cities with  low-scoring school districts or attend schools with poor academic performance, as they are in other places.

The original income limits of the program allowed middle income families who earn up to $62,000 for a family of four to to access vouchers at 50 percent of the amount that poorer families could receive. (Families of four with incomes of $42,000 or less could qualify to spend up to 90 percent of the state aid set aside their public school education on private school tuition.) New laws have since allowed children of parents who initially qualified only to see their incomes grow to keep their vouchers.

Indiana’s rapid growth continued after eligibility rules were widened even more.

An enrollment cap from the first two years was lifted as was a requirement that students must first try out a public school in their neighborhood before they used a scholarship. New rules also allowed siblings, students qualifying for special education services and students who live within the boundary of a failing school to use vouchers.

Vouchers were born in Milwaukee in 1990 and grew slowly for more than two decades. Wisconsin expanded vouchers to other parts of the state in 2013. Ohio also has a large program that has been expanded statewide. Some states, notably Florida, have voucher programs that target particular groups of students, such as disabled children.

Vouchers, billed by the state as “choice scholarships,” are controversial. Proponents say they expand quality options for poor children, and opponents say the state shouldn’t use tax dollars to pay for private, mostly religious, schools while draining the coffers of public schools.

“The continued growth of Indiana’s school voucher program is proof that parents want school choice,” said the institute’s president, Betsy Wiley.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.