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Column: Evidence on voucher success scant as lawmakers move to expand program


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Educational choice advocates came — 3,000 strong — to the Statehouse recently to demonstrate in favor of Indiana expanding what already is the nation’s most expansive school voucher program.

And, those opposed to vouchers also have planned a rally at the Statehouse — and doubtless they, too, will bring large numbers to support their position.

Welcome back to voucher wars.

For the better part of 20 years, much of the educational energy in this nation and state have been consumed by an endless debate about whether giving parents choices as to where they send their children to school would improve education.

Voucher advocates often had the edge in that debate — in large part because they generally could pick the points of engagement and they could argue theory, while their opponents were relegated to having to defend reality.

The voucher fans could focus their criticism on a poorly performing school and conjure up a vision in which introducing competition into the system would make poverty-filled neighborhoods, broken families and crime-ridden streets irrelevant to the educational process. When voucher opponents tried to respond, they found the experience a bit like trying to punch a cloud. There was nothing real there to hit.

Voucher advocates grounded their case for choice on three legs.

They said that a voucher system would increase accountability by giving parents and students a chance to vote with their feet and leave schools that didn’t serve their needs. They said that the current system spent money inefficiently because it was, in effect, a monopoly or cartel. And they said that student achievement would climb once a voucher system’s inherent competitive nature unleashed a new spirit of educational innovation.

I’ve been dubious about vouchers for years. I thought, though, that Indiana’s bold foray into a voucher system at least would give us a chance to test those claims and perhaps move beyond paralysis in education. This experiment, like all experiments, would tell us something.

But a person has to wait for the results in order to get that information.

The voucher supporters don’t seem to have that patience.

Indiana’s experiment with school choice is so new that parents, students and educators involved in the system still are figuring out where the light switches are, but voucher advocates want to charge ahead. The fact that they want to increase the size of the voucher program without any meaningful data that it’s working creates some doubt about the authenticity of their commitment to accountability.

But that may be because so many voucher advocates are such true believers. People who have faith often find proof unnecessary.

“I truly believe if we put kids firsts, if we give parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach, education in Indiana will continue to rock and it will continue to open doors of hope and opportunity for this generation and the next,” Gov. Mike Pence, a voucher advocate, said at the rally.

Maybe, but there’s little evidence so far in Indiana to show that.

And the studies elsewhere have been contradictory — most often reflecting the biases of their funders. The reasonably reliable studies only have shown two things consistently.

The first is that voucher systems often increase costs because they create multiple educational systems, all of which have to be funded some way.

That’s a point that opponents have started hammering on, now that vouchers have moved from dream to reality in Indiana and voucher opponents have something tangible to hit. Doubtless, they will track education costs in the state and point out places where the outlays have increased. That means voucher advocates will have to defend the same ground they once attacked.

They likely will be able to do that if the third leg of their argument can bear its weight — if student achievement increases significantly because a voucher system is in place. Taxpayers will feel better spending more money on education if they see that they’re getting something from the investment.

And if student test scores don’t climb?

Well, the other thing the studies consistently show in regard to voucher systems is that vouchers just make parents feel better about their children’s educations.

That’s nice, but it could be an expensive form of therapy for the taxpayers of Indiana.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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