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Connect the dots on lost education dollars

Published on 1/28/2023

Nothing about the guest speaker suggested power or prestige. She was the quintessential teacher, comfortable and ready to engage in a crushed velvet smock, black leggings, and comfortable shoes. She’d pulled her long hair up into a ponytail. Yet Dr. Jennifer McCormick was the last elected Superintendent of Education in Indiana, and she knew her stuff.

“Who are the students in here? Raise your hand,” she began. “So as a mother of someone close to your age, make sure you’re doing your studies and are here to educate yourselves. Hopefully a little extra credit?” Heads nodded no. “You can tell you’re at Wabash, by golly,” she joked, “you gotta learn.”

With twenty-five years in education as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and then IDOE’s elected leader from 2017 to 2021, McCormick spoke as one well acquainted with the good, the bad, and the reality about taxpayer dollars and fiscal responsibility. The state of Indiana funds almost eight and a half billion dollars of education annually according to the Education Data Initiative and receives very little from the federal government, yet millions of dollars are flowing out of that funding via the voucher program and McCormick said no one is accountable. With a new bill introduced in the state legislature this session, she wanted to educate the community on how this happens.

“Connect the dots,” said Dr. McCormick.

Dot One: In 2011, the narrative in the legislature was “We have a ton of black and brown students who are underserved (in their traditional public schools) and by golly we are going to get them out of there.” Charter schools had lost their shiny promise starting with some high-profile cases of financial mismanagement. Exacerbating the problem were mid-year closures by some charters which, when they failed to thrive, left students and families in a lurch. Furthermore, the data suggested that charters do not improve educational outcomes in comparison to traditional public schools.

For context, Indiana has long supported school options, but schools that are public (including traditional public schools and charter schools) are required to provide services for neurodivergent, special needs, or ESL populations. Private schools, traditionally associated with religious organizations, have been able to cherry-pick which students they can best educate and turn away students for a host of reasons, including religious differences and lack of services. In Indiana, homeschools have a designation as unaccredited freeway schools that educate a granular population and do not receive public dollars.

So, in 2011, politicians turned to vouchers as the next big “solution” for those Black and Brown kids. After passing the voucher program into law, politicians and pundits told national donors that Indiana had the cutting-edge voucher program in the nation. 

“That was bringing in money,” McCormick said, not for parents and students but for politicians in the form of campaign support, and it won the politicians the attention they crave from big names like the Walton family, the DeVos Foundation, and Purple for Parents. Their goals often align around the privatization of education. 

The voucher program sent dollars to private schools, Dr. McCormick noted, which resulted in further religious segregation and division, more racial identity politics, and denial of (dis)ability rights. 

“None of those politicians were surprised or unhappy at the divisions created,” said McCormick, nor did it trouble them that the vast majority of voucher dollars were not being used by black and brown students. 

Another trend emerged. In 2011, Indiana had 241 private schools. Fast forward to 2023, Indiana now has 324 private schools. 

“Many people define private schools as something you're familiar with. Usually, it is religiously associated. Not in Indiana. The definition of private school is loosely, loosely defined,” said McCormick. Private schools may be accredited by third-party organizations, ten of which are recognized by IDOE (Indiana Department of Education). Without accreditation, parents do not have certainty that their students will receive a quality education. Accreditation is optional. 

Dot Two: “So when I was in the Department of Education, we would get calls and they would say, hey, there's a school that started. You need to check on the wellness of the kids because it is in the back of a taco stand. It's a private school, and you need to go check on it.” As McCormick spoke she gestured and shook her head as if it was impossible that anyone would try these schemes. “So we'd send a team out. Sure. Now we had a school that was doing nothing with your money, in the back of a taco stand. There's no books, there's no teacher, but they're pulling in voucher money because it is a very, very expensive program with no guardrails.” In other words, the definition and accreditation expectations remain intentionally loose. In part, freeway (homeschools) and private schools can benefit from this lack of regulation. As Dr. McCormick noted, there are some very good homeschools and private schools, just as there are some good charter schools and some poor-performing traditional public schools. Her concern was not in promoting one school option as the only one. 

To be clear, Dr. McCormick said, her issue with the voucher program is about millions of dollars flowing out of the state because these schools act like false fronts, setting up and claiming the voucher funds until after Indiana’s “count day.” Count day occurs once per semester ordinarily, and schools must report who is on the rolls and came to school that day, showing that the school can claim funds to educate that student. Once that day passes, these front schools send the students back to their traditional public school with a “sorry.” The operators leave the state for the rest of the semester, taking money with them. Frustrated by the fiscal damage to the state and to taxpayer investments, McCormick’s team reported these schools to the Attorney General’s office, to legislators, to anyone who could hold these schools accountable. No one acted.

This year, Indiana’s legislature is promoting a new bill that will expand funding to cover materials, not just for traditional schools and charter schools, but also private schools. The voucher program which was worth over $241.4 million in the 2021-22 school year - a 44% increase from the previous year-, will expand and the definition of materials is arguably as loose as the definition of an accredited private school. McCormick notes that materials could be “a TV because maybe your kids are watching Sesame Street, a trip to Disney because maybe that's educational, or the tires for a car because maybe you need to get them somewhere.” 

Dot Three: What’s the why? Simon Sinek says that humans connect emotionally around the “why” question. Why? Because major donors prefer privatization and stratification or segregation by religion, race, and socio-economic status. 

“You can't unlearn what you're learning in that room,” said McCormick of the conventions that groups paid for her to attend. She gathered data to follow the money, to see who was benefitting, who was cheating, and how it affected local public schools. She’s been frustrated by the lack of action.  

“When I’m the most fiscally conservative person in that state house, there is a problem,” she said. “If I wasted money like that I should have been fired in three minutes. But the waste that this is producing is unbelievable.”