The Real Cost of School Vouchers: An Op-Ed from Dr. Phil Downs

Posted on April 18, 2018

Recently there have been a lot of stories and opinion pieces written about the Indiana voucher program and school funding. There appears to be a misconception about how the voucher program works as well as its impact on public schools.

Here is how a voucher works. A family wanting to attend a private school that accepts vouchers files their taxes like every other family. Like all taxpayers, a little over 44% of their state income tax goes to support the education of all of Indiana’s students through a fund called Tuition Support. The family that qualifies and wants to send their student to a voucher school then fills out a form (the voucher) directing the state to send money from the Tuition Support budget to their private school. This year Indiana will send over $150 million to private schools. The amount of each voucher varies per student, but the average is $4,258.

It is conventional wisdom that the voucher program will only affect big cities. While voucher usage is higher in big cities, the financial effect is felt in every school district because the voucher dollars come out of Tuition Support, in effect reducing the dollars supporting students in all public schools. 

State legislators are quick to point out that Indiana is now spending more on education than it ever has. That is true and it was true in the 2015 budget and the 2013 budget before that. But our spending is not keeping up with inflation and it is impacted by the increasing number of vouchers being used.

Let’s take a look at Indiana’s educational spending through the lens of a fictitious student named Fiona Hoosier. In January 2010, Fiona was in kindergarten and now is in the eighth grade. She has attended Logansport schools her whole life and loves being one of just over 4,200 Berries.

From January of her kindergarten year (2010) to January of her 8th grade year (2018), the Consumer Price index increased by 14.39%. This means if Fiona‘s parents had purchased something when she was in kindergarten for $100, it would cost them $114.39 today. If Hoosier paychecks are not 14.39% higher in 2018 than they were in 2010, they are falling behind inflation, even though their paychecks might be higher.

Indiana’s Tuition Support budget has increased over that same period by 10.2%. This is well short of inflation. When you look at a per student expense and factor in the dollars that have been sent to private schools as vouchers, Indiana’s Tuition Support has only increased by 7.18% per student. That is half the inflation rate! This is at a time when the state’s entire budget has gone up 16.82%. Public education has lagged behind in Indiana’s budget over Fiona’s time in school.

When Fiona was in second grade, the state began giving vouchers to private school students. Since then, the voucher program has grown to approximately 35,500 students. The voucher program has essentially created Indiana’s second largest school district without the oversight found in public school districts. Most of these students have never attended a public school before using a voucher and this year only 274 vouchers were used to leave an F-rated public school.

If the $150 million from Tuition Support that is used for vouchers was re-distributed to the public schools as part of each district’s basic tuition grant, Fiona’s Logansport School district would have received an additional $619,000 this year.

The impact of the voucher program is not based on how many vouchers are used in your district. It is based on each year’s Voucher Program cost to the Tuition Support budget across the state, regardless of the number of vouchers used within the district. For example, Lebanon Schools lost over $530,000, Plainfield Schools lost over $770,000, and Carmel Schools lost over $2,365,000 this year. Currently there are 23 school districts where no vouchers are used. They are small districts and the voucher program costs them over $4 million this year combined. Peru Schools is the largest of these districts and it lost over $321,000.

Here are this year’s losses in Allen County: East Allen County Schools, $1,380,000; Fort Wayne Community Schools, $4,469,000; Northwest Allen County Schools, $1,133,000; and Southwest Allen County Schools, $1,084,000.

To make this complicated issue much simpler, and in honor of Fiona and Pi Day (March 14th), think of a loganberry pie. Indiana has baked a smaller pie and expects it to feed a larger number of people. More kids, fewer dollars.

 

Dr. Phil Downs, Superintendent of Schools

Southwest Allen County Schools