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In State With Robust Private-School Vouchers, Many Families Don't Know They Exist

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Indiana has the largest, single private school voucher program in the country. And the six-year-old program has gotten a lot of national attention lately with the Trump administration's embrace of the policy idea. 

But in spite of that high profile, many Hoosier families are not aware that the state even has a voucher program, according to a new survey by EdChoice, a pro-school choice advocacy and research group.

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That finding echoes a larger national poll from earlier this year and raises some interesting policy implications.

What EdChoice Found:

Thirty-four percent of the public and private school parents surveyed in Indiana said they have not considered applying for state aid to send their children to private school because they hadn't heard of either of the two programs the state offers.

That number jumped even higher to 51 percent among low-income parents with children in district schools, some of them the very families that these programs initially set out to target.

Indiana's voucher program gives low- and middle- income families public money to spend at a private school, including religous schools. The other program gives large tax-credits to individuals who donate money for scholarships to low- and middle-income students to attend private school.

Indiana-vouchers-graph.jpg


Explainer: What Are School Vouchers and How Do They Work?


A little over 3,500 parents responded to the online survey. EdChoice says that its sample is not representative. That said, what the EdChoice poll found is somewhat similar to the findings from a May survey by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

That nationally representative poll found that 66 percent of the country had heard little or nothing about school vouchers.

Although the numbers are pretty different—34 percent compared to 66 percent—in both cases, pollsters were surprised by how many people were unfamiliar with vouchers at a time when the policy is arguably getting the most intense national exposure it's ever had.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then Republican candidate Donald Trump pledged to spend an unprecedented $20 billion on a federal school choice initiative. After taking office he selected Betsy DeVos, best known as a billionaire who had long been an influential philanthropic backer of school choice, to lead the U.S. Department of Education. However, Trump's school choice proposals appear to have hit a dead end in Congress. 

This was the first year that EdChoice asked Indiana families whether they knew about the state's voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, so we don't know if this number has been changing over time.

What does this mean for school choice advocates?

I put that question to Betsy Wiley, the president and CEO of the Institute for Quality Education, an advocacy group in Indiana that promotes expanding private school choice in the state.

"It definitely provides challenges," Wiley said. "When families don't know about them and aren't talking about the benefits of them, it's that much more difficult to make your case to lawmakers."

Wiley went on to say that she thinks the tax-credit scholarship program has had more success with promoting itself than the voucher program. She chalked that up to two possible reasons.

First, tax-credit scholarships are administered by nonprofit groups called scholarship granting organizations, and those groups have been very active in engaging parents in advocating for the program and promoting it to policymakers and beyond. The voucher program, on the other hand, is administered by the state department of education.

Secondly, the voucher program is bigger and therefore a larger target, said Wiley.

"Certainly, there is a lot of negative media attention and pushback from the teachers' union," she said.

The EdChoice survey also asked those families who are using vouchers and tax-credit scholarships how they learned about the programs. The three top answers? Friends. Family. And church. 

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Graph from "Why Indiana Parents Choose: A Cross-Sector Survey of Parents' Views in a Robust School Choice Environment"

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