Voucher transparency in the Hoosier State

The first results of the statewide testing of Indiana’s voucher students shows generally good marks for private schools participating in the program.  The group School Choice Indiana recently highlighted that voucher schools had an average 91 percent pass rate on the language arts portion of the test known as ISTEP+ and had an average 89 percent pass rate on the math portion. These exceeded the public school averages.

Rays of Light
Indiana deserves credit for shinging light on the performance of schools with voucher students.
Photo by Yorick_R.

In fact, NPR’s StateImpact Indiana reports that 171 of the 224 private schools in Indiana participating in the state’s new voucher program posted higher-than-average passing rates, and the average ISTEP+ pass rate at all schools receiving vouchers was 9 percentage points higher than the state’s overall average. But StateImpact also looked more closely at the schools that posted lower-than-average passing rates. Although that number only came to 41 voucher schools, those schools enrolled, on average, higher concentrations of voucher students.

As with most voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs, relatively few private schools in Indiana rely on the program for most of their revenues; most students pay privately. But, outside Indiana, we have little evidence of student performance at those private schools that rely heavily on voucher revenue.

There are many reasons to explain the lower passing rates among those 41 Indiana schools. The voucher students at those schools may come overwhelmingly from impoverished backgrounds and left their public schools because they were doing poorly there. And some of those schools administered the ISTEP+ for the first time this year. But what matters is that we can have this discussion because Indiana has introduced an unusual level of transparency in its voucher program.

The folks at the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas already have shown us that transparency can lead to better student outcomes over time. They believe that regulations governing the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program “played a role” in voucher student achievement gains, which were starting to outpace those of district school students in the final year of a five-year study. Those regulations include the administration of the same standardized test given at public schools and the reporting of results at each participating private school.

But only Milwaukee and Indiana have that level of scrutiny. Louisiana’s new voucher law requires that participating private schools administer the state test, but the results are only reported in the aggregate, not by each school.

We shouldn’t treat a school that enrolls one voucher-bearing student the same way we should treat a school that enrolls 1,000 (in previous posts, I’ve explored how Fordham’s sliding-scale approach toward accountability can apply to Louisiana). But keep in mind that Indiana simply threw some sunlight on the performance of its voucher schools. Over time, that sunlight could lead to better practices, but it’s hard to take those next steps without having the right information.

The Indiana voucher program has a lot to be proud of with this first round of test results, and it will help make the program more politically sustainable over time. Similar programs could learn from the Hoosier State, even if that means shining some light on performance they wouldn’t put in a press release.

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