Indiana GOP Pledged To Help Low-Income Students, Instead Approved Nation’s Largest Voucher Program

Our guest blogger is Annabel Lee Hogg, Special Assistant to the Domestic Policy Team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

On Wednesday the Indiana State legislature voted 55-43 to approve the largest private school voucher program in the nation’s history. The passage of Indiana House Bill 1003 shows that Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN) and his Republican-led legislature are more committed to an extreme conservative agenda than actually helping students in high-poverty schools.

Conservatives on the campaign trail sold the public on voucher programs by portraying them as efforts to close the achievement gap and help low income and minority students stuck in low performing schools.

Unfortunately all the talk of helping low income students appears to have been a ploy to get the bill support statewide. For one, there’s little research that shows that vouchers help close the achievement gap. For another, the new legislation falls far short of legislators’ lofty rhetoric.

The Indiana law doesn’t even attempt to focus resources on the lowest income students. Instead, roughly 60 percent of the state’s public school students will qualify for the vouchers, including those from middle-income families. The program will be capped at 7,500 students in the 2011-2012 school year, but after 2013 the vouchers will be limited only by interest and private school space.

Opening up the voucher program to middle income families would provide vouchers to children who are already far more likely to already attend high achieving schools. Indiana House Democrats recognized this and tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to limit the vouchers to students transferring out of low performing schools. In response, Republicans began backtracking on their earlier promises about why they wanted the program:

“It says nothing about failing or successful schools,” said Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, who sponsored the legislation. “It’s about empowering parents with additional choices.”

Indiana’s expansion of vouchers could have far-reaching consequences throughout the country. Still running off the fumes of electoral victories in 2010, conservative legislatures are pushing voucher agendas in statehouses across the country. Much of this pending legislation, such as bills in Pennsylvania and Florida, follow Indiana’s lead by having relatively lax income requirements for the vouchers. Loose income requirements open the door for access to families who may be able to afford tuition on their own.

There are better, more targeted ways of reaching students who attend high-poverty schools through investments in teacher effectiveness and equity, funding equity, and expanded learning time in schools. Recent studies show Indiana still has a long way to go in improving their low performing schools.

In the end, Indiana’s conservative legislators’ claim that voucher programs are a way to help low income and minority students is baldly disingenuous. The state’s move towards implementing a larger voucher programs will take money away from already cash strapped public schools and negatively impact the very populations that Republicans once claimed they were meant to help.