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Mike Pence is a devout believer in school choice and privatization of public funds. The Indiana state constitution specifically prohibits spending public funds in religious schools but the state courts ruled that the public money went to families, not to the religious schools that actually received the money. Now Indiana is a national model for the privatization movement, although the public was never asked to vote on this dramatic abandonment of public schools.
Indiana lawmakers originally promoted the state’s school voucher program as a way to make good on America’s promise of equal opportunity, offering children from poor and lower-middle-class families an escape from public schools that failed to meet their needs.
But five years after the program was established, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools, meaning that taxpayers are now covering private and religious school tuition for children whose parents had previously footed that bill. Many vouchers also are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.
The voucher program, one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing, serves more than 32,000 children and provides an early glimpse of what education policy could look like in Donald Trump’s presidency.
Trump has signaled that he intends to pour billions of federal dollars into efforts to expand vouchers and charter schools nationwide. Betsy DeVos, his nominee for education secretary, played an important role in lobbying for the establishment of Indiana’s voucher program in 2011. And Vice President-elect Mike Pence led the charge as the state’s governor to loosen eligibility requirements and greatly expand the program’s reach.
Most recipients are not leaving the state’s worst schools: Just 3 percent of new recipients of vouchers in 2015 qualified for them because they lived in the attendance area of F-rated public schools. And while private school enrollment grew by 12,000 students over the past five years, the number of voucher recipients grew by 29,000, according to state data, meaning that taxpayer money is potentially helping thousands of families pay for a choice they were already making.
Most recipients qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to state data, but a growing proportion – now 31 percent – do not.
Opponents argue that vouchers are not reaching the children most in need of better schools. They also assert that voucher programs violate the constitutional separation of church and state by funneling public dollars into religious schools, including those that teach creationism instead of the theory of evolution.
Indiana’s program survived a legal challenge in 2013, when a judge ruled that the primary beneficiaries of the vouchers were families, not religious institutions.
The Indiana General Assembly first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year.
“Public schools will get first shot at every child,” then-Gov. Mitch Daniels said at the time. “If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.”
DeVos, who had lobbied for the program as chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, hailed its passage and proposed that other states follow Indiana’s lead. Two years later, Pence entered the governor’s office with a pledge to extend vouchers to more children.
“There’s nothing that ails our schools that can’t be fixed by giving parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach,” Pence said during his inaugural address in 2013.
Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible.
When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers, and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.
The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly: By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients – 52 percent – had never been in the state’s public school system.