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Column: 16 million reasons to hope school vouchers work


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A report from the Indiana Department of Education about the state’s expansive — and apparently expensive — school voucher program predictably has produced more volleying than tennis fans see at Wimbledon.

The report revealed Indiana has spent $16 million on vouchers and that almost half the students receiving vouchers never have attended a public school.

Voucher opponents leapt on those numbers. They argued the report proved vouchers drained needed resources from the state’s public schools. They said the school choice program did little more than provide subsidies to parents who never had any intention of sending their children to a public school, regardless of how good that school might be.

They used terms like “bait and switch” and “con game” to describe the voucher program.

In response, voucher proponents were every bit as childish and churlish. They tried to make the case that the $16 million spent on vouchers really wasn’t a cost — which is precisely the kind of half-fast evasion and manipulation of data that voucher proponents pour scorn on when members of what they call the “education establishment” resort to it. It also called to mind the chestnut often attributed to the late conservative U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Illinois:

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

And voucher proponents complained that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz is mean to them and their cause, an odd complaint given the joy and satisfaction they took from the combative, confrontational style their champion, former state schools chief Tony Bennett, relied on while he was in office.

(Note to voucher advocates: There are terms used to describe people who like throwing punches but who whine when they get hit back. None of those terms is complimentary.)

While all this volleying was entertaining, it pretty much missed the point.

The money spent on vouchers now is immaterial. So is the fact that students and their families are making use of them without even trying a public school first.

The big question — and it’s likely to be much more than a $16 million question — is whether vouchers work.

The studies so far have been inconclusive. Generally, they reflect the biases of the people who paid for them.

What the studies have shown consistently is that vouchers achieve a kind of therapeutic effect: They make parents, in particular, feel more empowered even if they see no measurable gains in their children’s academic performance.

Voucher advocates can argue with justice that the voucher system is an experiment that still is new and has not been implemented fully enough anywhere for it to be effectively evaluated.

That’s why Indiana is important. This state has adopted the most sweeping voucher program in the nation. That makes Hoosierland the best test case for the voucher concept.

There was a telling exchange a while back in an Indiana Senate committee meeting.

In it, voucher advocate Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, staked out what amounted to the “therapeutic effect” defense for school choice. He said it was a kind of entitlement for parents.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, though, asked whether the state’s leaders should see some evidence that vouchers were improving test scores or other signs of academic performance before committing even more fully to a school choice system.

My guess is that Hoosiers who still are open to reason and evidence in the great education reform debate will ask the same question Kenley did.

If a school voucher system works, meaning it improves the educational opportunities and experiences for Hoosier children, most Indiana taxpayers will be happy to spend a lot more than $16 million on school choice.

And if the vouchers do not move the numbers and only make a relative few parents feel good about a choice they wanted to make anyway, then the pressure to pull the plug on the voucher system will grow — and grow fast.

All the volleying in the world won’t disguise the fact that vouchers are here and that one way or another, we’re going to find out soon whether they actually do work.

The Indiana Department of Education report just showed us that we now have 16 million reasons to hope that they do.

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

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