IAHE Action has heard from parents with children in Indiana voucher-accepting schools that they have seen negative consequences of vouchers. We asked these parents to share their observations as a warning to others in regards to the negative effect of government funding of education whether it’s a voucher or an education scholarship/options account.
The Indiana General Assembly included the language below in Indiana Code in 2011 to protect nonpublic schools that take public funding. As you will note, even with the best of intentions, government funding has unintended consequences.
IC 20-51-4 Chapter 4. Choice Scholarship
IC 20-51-4-1 Autonomy of nonpublic schools; curriculum
Sec. 1. (a) Except as provided under subsections (b) through (h), it is the intent of the general assembly to honor the autonomy of nonpublic schools that choose to become eligible schools under this chapter. A nonpublic eligible school is not an agent of the state or federal government, and therefore:
(1) the department or any other state agency may not in any way regulate the educational program of a nonpublic eligible school that accepts a choice scholarship under this chapter, including the regulation of curriculum content, religious instruction or activities, classroom teaching, teacher and staff hiring requirements, and other activities carried out by the eligible school;
(2) the creation of the choice scholarship program does not expand the regulatory authority of the state, the state’s officers, or a school corporation to impose additional regulation of nonpublic schools beyond those necessary to enforce the requirements of the choice scholarship program in place on July 1, 2011; and
(3) a nonpublic eligible school shall be given the freedom to provide for the educational needs of students without governmental control.
Ask anyone, and they will tell you that Catholic schools are known to do a great job of educating children, especially the poor and minorities. The authors of the book Common Good say that the Catholic schools have built their success by having each school decide its academic standards. They have traditionally given less weight to background differences, and this provides an excellent education for all students. Costs began rising when the schools did not have as many nuns teaching, and this has made it harder for parents to send their children to Catholic schools. For many parents and schools the development of vouchers seemed like an answered prayer; however, this is proving not to be true.
The vouchers were started with parents being told that there would be few changes for the private school; the main change being that parents and schools would see an increase of funds. This would help to take the financial burden off of the parents and churches. This sounded too good to be true and, in fact, it was-Catholic schools are changing and will continue to change as long as they take government money. Vouchers threaten the autonomy of Catholic schools, as each used to choose its curriculum and choose how to be accredited or not accredited. Now all forty-two elementary schools in our diocese are accredited by AdvancEd. Starting this year all curricula needed to be approved by the diocese.
At least two schools had already purchased books and were told to use different ones, or they would lose their accreditation from the state as well as voucher money. The diocese is in the planning stages of having an approved list of books for each school to choose from. This means that all forty-two schools will be using the same curriculum with only a few changes from school to school. Many are not aware, but all five of the dioceses in Indiana joined, and all are accredited by AdvancEd because individual accreditation is cost prohibitive.
In March of 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that private schools are subject to government regulations if they enroll students with government money. This money can go directly to the school or the individual student, but the same rule still applies. Examples of federal assistance are scholarships, loans, and grants.
All students take the ISTEP test which is aligned to Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The test is aligned to CCSS because Indiana takes federal money and Common Core (CC) testing is part of the requirements. Each student including those who do not receive vouchers takes the test. Every student in Catholic schools has become part of the federal database. Schools discourage parents from refusing the test as this can change test results, especially in a small school. This is important because schools are graded on their results and if a school has too many years of failing test results the school loses its accreditation and voucher money. Schools must follow the state standards, and the state standards include federal rules as Indiana receives federal money. In essence, the federal government can tell the schools in Indiana what they can teach. Individual schools in our diocese will no longer choose their curriculum. The diocese will provide each school with an approved curriculum list. This is not the parent-guided learning that the Catholic Church advocates. Many of our schools are using the Notre Dame ACE program which instructs teachers how to infuse Catholicism into the secular school books. The Notre Dame ACE curriculum has CC in it. CCSS are copyrighted by the National Governors Association (NGA). The copyright ensures the same standards or same curriculum. This is being seen in the diocese as they will be giving the same curriculum choices to all forty-two elementary schools. The key to CCSS is the individual student learning outcomes. The outcome does not take into account individual differences, but rather all are the same and failure is removed. This is done by lowering the academic bar for Catholic students. As an example, in one school where new books were bought this year the sixth-grade students are doing the same math they did in fourth grade. This allows all students to meet the standards-not one child fails and no one excels. Gone are the days when all students are challenged; instead, teachers are told to challenge when they can. Some parents have asked to have their children put ahead in areas that are not challenging the student, and they have been told this could cause social problems.
Catholic schools are quick to say that the state is not telling them what curriculum to use, and this is true. The state, instead, has chosen to use the state standards as the guidelines that each school must meet that takes vouchers. This limits the curriculum choices for these schools. The sixth-grade math standards page and the sixth grade English standards PDF page of the IDOE (which anyone can download) states many of the standards originated from various sources including Common Core State Standards. One principal said Indiana does not have CCSS in its schools. The schools must teach to the standards, so, therefore, CCSS are in Indiana state accredited schools. Dr. Terrence Moore, of Hillsdale College, did not support the 2014 revision of Indiana standards. Hung-His Wu of the University of California Berkeley, a math professor, and common core supporter, told reporters that ninety percent of Indiana College-and-Career Ready standards are straight from Common Core standards. This makes sense as standards can only deviate fifteen percent from the federal guidelines. James Milgram, a professor of math at Stanford University, did not support Indiana’s new 2014 standards. In 2014, Hoosiers against Common Core released a study that compared the two guidelines 2010 and 2014, and it found that the majority of the standards for 2014 were imported word for word from the 2010 Common Core standards. The analysis also showed that most of the hotly contested standards were still included. Catholic schools now teach to these standards. Another principal has said that Indiana uses College-and-Career-Ready standards, not CCSS. Do a Google search and you will find that this is just another name for CCSS. If your standards use ninety percent of CCSS, you are truly just using CCSS. Scores in most Catholic schools were higher on the tests given before implementing the voucher program. David Coleman has said that the SAT will be aligned to CCSS. Catholic high schools will likewise teach to the CCSS in order to receive accreditation and good SAT scores.
Voucher-receiving schools need to complete a school improvement plan and a review of student achievement indicators. This is a paper that schools type up and send to the state. The state then reviews the plan to assure it meets the standards and that the school has an improvement plan. There also is an appointed ombudsman to help with receiving the funds. This also ensures that all the guidelines are met. The guidelines can lead too much extra spending as well. One small rural school needs to spend $15,000 on security to maintain accreditation. This will include protective film on all the windows and two-way radios.
The academic assessments include measures to assess higher-order thinking skills and understanding in all grades that are tested. This has led to testing in younger grades that is not developmentally appropriate until a child reaches the age of eleven or twelve as they do not have the developed pre-frontal cortex needed to think abstractly. This is necessary for higher order thinking. These tests do not measure knowledge but the thinking process. It is difficult to assess higher order thinking on a standardized test accurately. These tests affect all students at Catholic schools even if no voucher money is taken by a family as the schools can not discriminate in their policies, all must take the tests. The Pioneer Institute says that the liberation theology and social justice promoted and taught by Catholic schools is Marxism or secularism. Therefore, a secular curriculum will be used most in Catholic schools.
Currently, all of our diocese schools accept vouchers, and this subjects them to the mandates of the education bill, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This was signed into law in December of 2015, and it cemented CC into federal control. For the Catholic school, this means as long as they take vouchers they have no choice but to choose an ESSA curriculum. Catholic schools that are accredited are finding it difficult to make changes their curriculum. This will remain true as long as they continue to take the vouchers. Teaching from secular textbooks will continue, and socialism and socialist pressure will continue to be introduced at a young age.
The cost of a private Catholic education has also changed with the vouchers. Before vouchers, each school/church along with the diocese was able to pay for the expenses of each child that went to that school. Most people knew that Catholic parents would not be able to afford the complete cost of a Catholic education, so each church assisted the school in paying for some of the costs of the school. This was common in Lutheran schools as well. Children were told that the cost of their education was kept down by contributions from the congregation or parish members. Most students in the 1970’s did not pay a high tuition to go to a Catholic school. The tuition was capped at $500 or $600 a family. Most of the money to run the school (teacher salary, building, etc.) came from the church. For Catholics, this began to change as nuns became less available to teach. Most churches charged tuition, but, if the family could not afford it, the church picked up the cost of the education. No one was turned away because they couldn’t pay. The schools also had a limit of how many children each family would have enrolled and pay tuition. An example would be three children as the limit of paying. So, as an example, if the tuition was $2,000 a student the maximum amount a family would pay is $6,000 even if they had four children in school. This is changing with the vouchers. Soon at all schools, there will not be a cap on the number of students one family needs to pay tuition for. The new cost per student is approximately $3,000-$4,000. If your family does not qualify for vouchers, and you have four children enrolled, you are now paying $12,000-$16,000 instead of $6,000. This is twice as much and some who do not get vouchers find this added cost unaffordable. School choice is not working for these parents it is hurting them. Parents who get vouchers have very little choice either as they cannot afford the tuition at a non-voucher school where before they were able to afford the private Catholic school education with assistance from the parish.
Small schools, who before only had five to six computers for the whole school, now have a computer for each child so that the standards can be met. These small schools would not be able to maintain this level of technology without the vouchers and they would not have bought them if did not receive voucher money. Many studies have been done that show that students retain knowledge better with books. Books are what made those small schools great academically. In one small Catholic school, they say they have seen a twenty percent decline in their test scores since starting to accept vouchers and changing their curriculum. The vouchers have made Catholic education less affordable, and choice is being taken from the individual schools and parents.
Every voucher-accepting school needs to be able to accept special needs children. This has increased the cost to each school. Special needs children deserve to have a good education but by requiring a private school to accept special needs children, the voucher, have greatly increased the costs to those schools. It has forced our diocese to have one school that is devoted to accepting special needs students. The diocese assures all students with special needs can get to the school by bus or by car. Each school also needs to be able to accommodate some amount of special needs, and this has led to the additional hiring of aides to provide 1:1 work. The small school will find this beyond their financial ability.
The atmosphere at the Catholic schools has also changed when talking to parents and teachers. Parents that choose to send their children to a Catholic school that does not belong to the church do not have as much of an invested interest in the church, and therefore the commitment from these parents is less. Many have noticed a decrease in participation in school improvement efforts such a fundraisers for blinds, books, desks and other items that these schools need. Most do not see how this benefits the school to keep costs down.
Parents are pulling problem students from one school and putting them in another school. Often these problems follow the child. These are usually behavior problems, and this means that teachers spend increased time on disciplining and less time teaching. Some of these students have parents who want a hands-off approach and so they have had very little structure at home. Therefore it is difficult for these children to adjust to a structured Catholic environment. Students are also witnessing increased violence, poor language, and disrespect to teachers. Many Catholics sent their children to a private school to see less of this. Most of the children that are admitted that have behavior problems are difficult to remove from the individual schools once they are admitted, and schools cannot discriminate who they admit. To remove one of these children there needs to be a lot of documentation. After the documentation is completed, there is separate paperwork to complete and send to the state. Also, whatever percentage of the school year is left, that percentage of the voucher money must go with that child to his next school. This is added work for the principals.
Parents of students in Catholic schools are being told that Indiana did not adopt CCSS and therefore we are not using CCSS. This is not true as one school is using CC math and reading. Indiana still receives federal funding for schools and therefore must meet federal guidelines. This includes Catholic schools who take voucher money. This is another step in nationalizing education and Catholic schools by choosing to take the voucher money have to participate. This puts each Catholic child into the national database of information and identifies them as a worker. The goal some say is to use these tests scores to steer children into careers and jobs. Others say that only the top twenty percent of students nationally will go on to college. There must be accountability for the money that is given to schools from the state. The accountability of the voucher money will the follow the child wherever his education takes place, private, public, or charter. If the state does not have accountability for the voucher program there will be misuse and problems. Also, people want to know how well their tax money is working.
Remember schools that take voucher money must teach to the State’s standards and Indiana’s HB 1427 states, That the board will use CC as the base model for academic standards to the extent necessary to comply with federal standards to receive a flexibility waiver. Therefore, when parents are told that Indiana does not have any CC they are wrong. Ninety percent of the current math standards are still the same in the new 2014 guidelines. The idea is to nationalize education and have this money follow students from state to state. This is not what we want as parents.
The vouchers have not improved Catholic education or the environment in which the child learns. Every child in a Catholic school has been affected by the vouchers even those who do not receive one as everything is now aligned to state standards.
The best solution would be for Catholic schools to return to not accepting state funds. Catholic schools at one time supported themselves and could again. Hillsdale College is one such institution that thrives without government money. In 1998, in Tennessee, a Catholic superintendent was able to reopen closed Catholic schools with donations from businesses and individuals. Any child who could not afford the schooling was not charged tuition. This model could work for our Catholic schools as well. Many believe we are making education more affordable with the money from the state but as stated tuition costs have risen. Each Catholic school that accepts vouchers waves the right to set their own standards and they must conform to the state standards that include national testing. For most of the Catholic schools in our diocese, this will mean the Notre Dame ACE program and choosing from a curriculum that the diocese approves. Prior to the voucher program, each Catholic school principal would choose the curriculum and it was approved by the parish priest. This was more local than the new approach.
A study that was released a little over a year ago revealed that students with vouchers lost significantly in math and they had zero gains in English. Another study showed that schools now administer about twenty percent more tests.
Private schools who do not participate in Indiana’s voucher program site concerns about independence, character, and the identity of their school. All of these concerns have become true for the Catholic schools that take vouchers in our diocese. Many of the non-participating schools also stated that they did not want to administer the current ISTEP test as they feel that it does not reflect their curriculum goals. Another concern of non-participating private schools is the increased paperwork and reports.
The Association of Classical and Christian Schools summarizes vouchers in this way, “He who takes the King’s coin becomes the King’s man.” Just because conditions are now tolerable does not mean that they may not be tolerable tomorrow. Their stance is that if you take money from the state, you will take your marching orders from the state.
One can be certain that as long as money is taken from the state for a school accountability will follow that money and at any time those conditions can change for the better or worse. We all have seen how difficult it is repeal regulations once they happen.
If our Catholic schools continue to use the current state standards and chosen curriculum we foresee a mass exodus from the Catholic schools and eventually closings of Catholic schools; vouchers were to help school choice not to close them. The education that is given is mediocre at best which forces parents to find alternate ways to educate their children, including homeschooling. This is one alternative which allows the parents to take back the control of their children’s education. Many families, especially single parent homes and those who both must work will find it difficult to find workable solutions. Some will find that they must choose needed income from their jobs over a better education for their children. Families must provide for the basic needs of their children.
The choice of curriculum needs to be brought back to each school. Our diocese should consider how they may best do this. Each school’s involvement at the local church level is what made private Catholic schools better; it was not state money. The schools were a mission of the Catholic Church and they should return to a mission and not be voucher-funded where few decisions are left to the parents, priest, and church.
This paper was written by a family who has seen changes caused by the Indiana voucher program.
More Indiana voucher regulation news:
Education Freedom Watch Private School Choice Freedom Grading Scale Table
A Parent Laments the Common Core-Voucher Link
Indiana Conservative Coalition: “School Choice” with Strings Attached Not Conservative
How Common Core is Affecting Private Christian Schools? Common Core Education Standards Generate Catholic Concerns
Six Things to Know About Indiana’s School Voucher Program, a Model Betsy DeVos Could Support