Indiana School Voucher Program Has Problems

Governor Mitch Daniels’ education reforms may improve choice for parents but limit the freedoms of private schools.

Governor Mitch Daniels’ introduction of an educational voucher program in the state of Indiana, designed to enhance school choice and boost quality, is widely praised. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf is thrilled, noting that two-thirds of Indiana voters approved the plan, giving the rest of the country a chance to see “how it works out on a larger scale than has ever been tried before.” But the libertarian Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer is worried. Writing for The Huffington Post, he describes the voucher program as “a tactical victory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategic defeat for educational freedom.”

Unlike previous experiments with school vouchers, all of Indiana’s children would be eligible to enroll within three years, allowing families rich and poor to afford whatever education they prefer, public or private.

Other reforms enacted by the Indiana legislature as part of the governor’s education agenda include: Allowing principals to conduct impromptu classroom visits; requiring districts to regularly evaluate teachers; requiring teachers of grades 5 through 12 to have a college major in the subject they hope to teach.

Teachers’ unions would be prevented in the future from negotiating on anything but wages and benefits, including curriculum, instructional practices and evaluation formulas, making it easier for schools to fire teachers.

The new law also requires schools to obtain parental permission for their children to be placed in the classroom of a teacher rated “ineffective” two years in a row. Critics are afraid that this will prompt school administrators to assign the most disadvantaged students to the worst teachers, knowing that poor students’ parents are less likely to have the time and social capital to take advantage of opting out. With the voucher program in place though, they would no longer be at a financial disadvantage and able to send their children to whatever school they like.

While thus improving school choice for parents, the freedoms of participating institutions would be limited. Private schools accepting vouchers would be forced to: Annually administer statewide testing of students and submit their performance data to the state; accept lottery admissions if oversubscribed; accept extensive and detailed new curriculum and pedagogical requirements, including some that aren’t currently part of state accreditation.

Private schools would have to “provide good citizenship instruction that stresses the nature and importance of,” among other things: Respecting authority; respecting the property of others; respecting one’s parents and home; respecting the rights of others to have their own views and religious beliefs.

Few parents should object to that though as Schaeffer points out, coupled with the inability of participating schools to select students based on their background or potential, it could very well alter the character of private schools, particularly those founded on religious beliefs.

Schools wouldn’t be forced to accept vouchers so they could maintain their independence in theory but in practice, because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over others, “lightly regulated schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate.”

Over time, many of those who refuse to submit to state control will be driven out of business by competition from the highly regulated but voucher funded schools.

In effect, the voucher program would thus expand state control and encourage homogenization of education between participating schools. “The likely effect,” Schaeffer fears, “is a serious loss of education freedom and diversity of options in the medium term and a near total loss in the long term.”