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School Voucher Numbers Are Growing, and So Is Accountability, Says Report

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Funding and participation numbers are on the rise in school voucher programs, as is accountability, according to a report from Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Vouchers allow parents to use public money to help pay for private school tuition, including those affiliated with a religion. To be eligible, students generally have to come from low-income families or be zoned to attend a failing school, among other possible restrictions.

The center's policy brief looks only at general education vouchers—which means voucher-like programs such as tax-credit scholarships or voucher programs solely for students with special needs were not included. Under that definition, only Indiana, LouisianaOhio, and Wisconsin qualified for the analysis.

The report says that voucher programs in those states have been expanding rapidly in the last four to five years, and as I wrote in a story for Education Week, Indiana is a prime example of that trend:

"An Indiana Department of Education report ... further details the rapid growth of the voucher program: A little more than 29,000 Indiana students use vouchers to attend private schools this school year, a 47 percent increase from last school year [2013-14].

That's a big jump, but it's dwarfed by growth in previous years. The program debuted with 3,900 students in 2011-12. The number of participating students soared the next year by 134 percent, and climbed again by 117 percent in 2013-14."

No other voucher program launched since 2011 has reached the scale of Indiana's, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Meanwhile, other states with similar numbers of students participating in one or more voucher programs—such as Ohio and Wisconsin—have had at least one program in place since the early 2000s.

Part of the growth in Indiana and the other states has been spurred on by loosening eligibility requirements, according to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy's report.

"All of the voucher programs currently in operation have increased and/or eliminated caps on enrollment," the report says. "Regarding income eligibility, we see programs expanding to include both low-income and lower-middle-class families."

Also Trending: Accountability

But there's also been a trend toward increased accountability requirements for private schools participating in these programs, the brief says.

For example, in 2005 Wisconsin made it so voucher schools had to get accredited and administer standardized tests. Four years later, the legislature passed a law requiring schools to publicly report those test scores.

However, some school choice advocates worry that more testing and reporting requirements will deter private schools from joining voucher programs. Although the report says it's too early to know if that will be the case, a recent survey conducted in Florida, Indiana, and Louisiana by researchers from the University of Arkansas' Department of Education Reform found that concerns over regulation and maintaining independence are the primary reasons private schools choose not to participate in school voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs.

Indiana has some of the strictest accountability requirements among voucher states. That said, so far it hasn't appeared to hurt voucher growth in the state because, advocates theorize, many Indiana private schools had voluntarily opted into a unique state-accreditation program long before lawmakers passed the voucher bill.

That means voucher schools were already administering state tests, which made the transition to accepting voucher students—and the regulations that come along with them—easier. According to the Friedman Foundation, Indiana is the only voucher state with such an accreditation program for its private schools.

You can dig into the full Center for Evaluation and Education Policy report here and read my story on why Indiana's voucher program is expanding so rapidly, here. 

Related:

School Voucher Proposals Advocates are Watching this Legislative Season

Why Private Schools Are Opting Out of Voucher Programs

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