The voucher scheme, potentially the biggest in America, was set up a year ago as part of a big package of educational reforms led by Indiana’s governor, Mitch Daniels, and his superintendent of schools. These include teacher evaluations that take student performance into account, giving school heads more autonomy and encouraging the growth of charter schools. Jeanne Allen, president of the Centre for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group, says the reforms are unique because Indiana has looked at education reform in its “totality”, rather than taking a piecemeal approach as many other states have done.
Nationally there are now 32 school voucher programs in 16 states and Washington, DC, serving at least 210,000 students. Yet despite their limited reach vouchers are controversial. Parents with vouchers use them to enter private education, and so detractors argue they drain finance from public schools and “privatise” education. Another concern is that vouchers can be used at religious schools and therefore erode the barrier between church and state.
However, as vouchers often pay less than the cost of educating a single pupil in public schools, they offer a way for a state to make savings in education spending, while increasing choice for parents. Moreover, the Indiana scheme has allayed fears that vouchers will not reach their target audience of low-income families. In the first year about 85-90% of children receiving them have come from households that qualify for free school lunches. Moderate-income families can receive a voucher with a lower value.
Mr Daniels thinks that vouchers are first and foremost a question of social justice. “There is no good reason a low-income person should have a narrower range of schools or be compelled to attend a school for lack of income. The state’s role is to provide an education but the choice of the mode of education should be left to the parent,” he says.
Indiana’s philosophy of promoting choice has also extended to making it possible for students to apply to any public school—including those outside the school district in which the child lives. And some signs suggest greater choice is having a positive effect in Indiana. For one thing, some public schools have started to compete for students.