Indiana school choice study: where students go and how much it costs or saves

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — “The most interesting feature of this is the big winners in school choice, in terms of student numbers, appear to be the traditional public school.”

That was Michael Hicks’ initial response to his recent study School Choice and State Spending on Education in Indiana. Hicks, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, joined with Dagney Faulk to publish the findings earlier this month.

The study used data from 2019-20 student transfers among public, charter, and private school options. It showed roughly 85% of Indiana students attend the public school in the district where they live. The next choice? A different public school.

“The biggest share of movement of students was to other local public schools,” said Hicks. “I think it points to the fact that Hoosiers really want to get their children educated in high performing local public schools.”

Hicks says “there’s actually a smaller share of Hoosier children attending both private schools and charter schools today than there were back in 2005.”

“Just under 6% of students are traveling to another local public school and then just under 4% are going to a charter school and just over 3% are taking a voucher to a private school,” he adds.

The study estimates Indiana saves about $90 million every year under the current system. “That sounds really big but that’s like $85 per kid in the state. So while it seems like a big wow, it’s not a big share of what we spend on education.”

Julie Hollingsworth thinks any savings comes at the expense of large districts such as Fort Wayne Community Schools, where she is serving in her third term as a school board member.

For example, the data showed 697 students left FWCS to attend East Allen County Schools in the 2019-2020 school year. The loss to FWCS? $4,669,607. East Allen was paid $4,422,577 for those students, which saved Indiana $247,031. For perspective, FWCS spent $203,744,479 for education that year.

In a published opinion piece this month she shared with WANE 15, Hollingsworth was especially critical of the expanded voucher system. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed legislation to raise the eligibility for a family of four from $72,000 to $145,000 in annual household income. Additionally, she wrote, “the current program has 50%, 70% and 90% vouchers, each with income limits. Beginning next school year, all vouchers will be 90% of what the state would pay for that child to attend public school.”

“I think most taxpayers would not be happy to know that their funds were being used so that middle class or upper middle class families can benefit more,” she told WANE 15.

Hicks seems to agree the change could eliminate any savings to the state through the voucher program. “If there’s a big explosion of new students in charter and private schools, then that would reduce the cost savings to the state. If there’s a fairly static amount, then it’s, it’s not going to really change them.”

Hicks has been critical before of the money Indiana spends on education. This study concludes “For each $1 saved by choice, the General Assembly reduced spending on K-12 by nearly another $7.” He adds “the General Assembly allocated a smaller share of GDP to education (in 2019-2020) than it did in 2009-10. The result was $1.3 billion fewer dollars to K-12 education.”

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