Are school vouchers good for education? That debate is playing out in Indiana

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: The Trump administration has made it very clear that it wholeheartedly supports school choice.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a strong advocate of vouchers, which allow parents to use public tax dollars to pay for a private school education. Supporters say vouchers help students succeed, but opponents say they siphon away crucial public school resources.

Indiana has one of the largest voucher programs in the country.

And special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week went to see how it’s working for our regular segment Making the Grade.

LISA STARK: It’s the start of the day at Emmaus Lutheran School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where chapel is held once a week.

About 20 miles away, this is how the day begins at Fairfield Elementary, the city’s largest public elementary school.

Fairfield is warm and welcoming. So is Emmaus. Fairfield get top grades from the state for academics. So does Emmaus. But one is a public school, the other a private school that accepts vouchers.

They symbolize opposite sides of the heated voucher debate, only likely to intensify, given the administration’s strong support for school choice.

At the heart of the debate, money, and how education dollars are divvied up. Normally, the state distributes tax dollars to public schools to educate students. In Indiana, that’s about $5,800 a student. Vouchers change that. A portion of the money, the tax dollars, follow the student instead, allowing parents the use those dollars to pay tuition at the private school of their choice.

That’s the voucher program.

Robert Enlow is an advocate.

ROBERT ENLOW, President, EdChoice: We have seen over time our traditional school systems, because they’re based on zip code assignment and where you live, not providing always the best options for families.

Let’s put the money in the backpacks of the parent and let them choose where they want to go by giving parents the best options for their kids.

LISA STARK: Indiana is one of nearly 30 states that offers vouchers or similar programs. All have the same goal: allowing parents to use public funds for private schooling.

Jerry and Miriam Lunz use vouchers to send their children to private Lutheran schools, rather than their local public schools.

JERRY LUNZ, Parent: I would say the schools in our particular area are not the best from the academic standpoint. That played into some of it, but mostly the moral aspect is what we wanted, the Christian aspect, same taught at the school as at the home.

LISA STARK: Without vouchers, private high school was mostly out of reach.

MIRIAM LUNZ, Parent: We looked at the financial aspect, and we had no idea how we were going to cover the cost. Jerry is the hardest-working truck driver I know, but that doesn’t pay a lot.

LISA STARK: More than 300 private schools in Indiana accept vouchers. The vast majority are religious schools.

Keith Martin is the principal at Emmaus Lutheran.

Why does this school participate in the voucher program?

KEITH MARTIN, Principal, Emmaus Lutheran School: Simply because it allows us to serve more students and more families.

LISA STARK: In fact, nearly half of the 193 students at Emmaus rely on vouchers, bringing in about $400,000 for the school, more than a third of its budget.

KEITH MARTIN: It’s obviously very helpful, but you know, our school was here 100 years before the voucher program, and I’m confident that we will have it here 100 years with or without the voucher program.

LISA STARK: At Fairfield Elementary, a drop in students and resources due partly to vouchers has strained budgets, according to principal Lindsay Amstutz-Martin.

LINDSAY AMSTUTZ-MARTIN, Principal, Fairfield Elementary: I do know I have lost teachers every year. I have lost allocations of teachers every year, because we’re losing students, and sometimes that makes — certain grade levels’ class sizes are large.

LISA STARK: In kindergarten, for example, there are 28 students and just one teacher.

Fort Wayne Superintendent Wendy Robinson sees vouchers as an assault on public schools.

WENDY ROBINSON, Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent: You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.

LISA STARK: Another concern, Robinson says this is unfair competition, that public schools, unlike private ones, are required to educate everyone who comes in the door, including students with disabilities or limited English skills, who require more resources.

WENDY ROBINSON: If they took every student, if they were responsible for special ed, if they took ELL, if they were not allowed to pick and choose which kids they took, bring it on.

LISA STARK: Indiana’s program started out for low-income students. It was greatly expanded. It now includes students who never attended public schools, and middle-class families were added under then Governor, now Vice President Mike Pence.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I have also long believed that parents should be able to choose where their kids go to school.

LISA STARK: Enrollment skyrocketed from 9,000 students to more than 34,000, 3 percent of the school population. This year, $146 million in tax dollars is going to private schools.

School choice, including vouchers, is high on the agenda of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Trump’s first school visit was to a Florida Catholic school that accepts vouchers.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Education is the civil rights issue of our time. And it’s why I have asked Congress to support a school choice bill.

LISA STARK: Nationally, the results on vouchers are mixed, with little or no improvement in test scores for voucher students. Still, some 29 states are considering dozens of bills that would start or expand vouchers and similar programs.

ROBERT ENLOW: We have seen dramatic growth. What we’re going to see more of is more and more parents demanding more and more options.

But public school officials wonder, at what cost?

WENDY ROBINSON: I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.

LISA STARK: A backbone increasingly under pressure.

I’m Lisa Stark of Education Week in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for the PBS NewsHour.

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