by Michael Hicks
The past two decades have been an interesting period for K-12 education in Indiana. Significant policy changes have allowed families more freedom in their educational choices. This has led to plenty of political posturing and misinformation. So, it is worth reviewing actual data about school choice dynamics.
First, student enrollment in Indiana, both public and private, has been remarkably stable since the late 1990s. Enrollment in 1998 was 1.113 million students. It peaked in 2005 at 1.156 million students and has since declined to 1.108 million kids. That shouldn’t shock anyone, but these next data will. In 1998, 11.34 percent of Hoosier students were in private schools; there were no charters at the time. In 2016, a total of 9.62 percent of students were in private and charter schools. So, despite what you may hear, enrollment in non-traditional schools (charter and private) has actually declined since the late 1990s. So, yes, folks, the hysteria about student losses to charter schools and private schools is carefully fabricated, deliberate misinformation.
In fact, Hoosier parents increasingly choose local public schools over other alternatives, and that has been the most illuminating element of school choice in Indiana. Last year, only 5.6 percent of students were in private schools (half of the 1998 share), while 4.8 percent attended a local public school outside their corporation. Only 4.2 percent were in charter schools. The big story is the rise of public school choice.
Attending school outside a local area is a costly and inconvenient family decision. However, that decision is highly correlated with simple measures of school performance. With at least one school corporation still protesting its 2016-2017 grade, I use 2015-2016 numbers. In that year, for every 100 kids that transferred out of a local public school, A-corporations saw 133 in-transfers, B-corporations received 88 in-transfers, C-corporations had only 54 kids in-transfers, and D-corporations saw a meager 6 in-transfers for every 100 who left. In the state’s one F school, 6,776 were out-transfers and there were no in-transfers.
Many educators will say, correctly, that school performance based on standardized tests is highly correlated with student poverty. However, the variability between schools even on pass rates for poor children is stunning and illuminating.
In Muncie, where more than 40 percent of students have departed to other school corporations, the ISTEP+ pass rate for poor children (who qualify for free or reduced lunch) is 40.3 percent. In the other local public schools, poor children pass the ISTEP+ at 49.3 percent, and at much lower cost. In Muncie it costs the state $18,947 per poor child passing the ISTEP+, but in the average of the surrounding counties the cost is $13,050. This dynamic plays out elsewhere. In Gary, it costs $37,877 to get a single child to pass the ISTEP, but in Cannelton it cost the state only $22,175. Both are F schools (or will be after the appeal process concludes) and have nearly identical share of kids eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch respectively, 82 and 79 percent respectively. Neither of these are good school systems, but it demonstrates that where you choose to be a poor student matters to your success, which is the essence of school choice.
There’s no use pretending school choice is perfect, but the notion that school choice has damaged local public schools is mistaken. All school choice did was let students flee underperforming schools without forcing families to move. That is exactly what places like Gary, Muncie or Terre Haute need, for without better schools or better school choice there will be no future economic or population growth.
As I write this, I suspect that many readers are shocked by these data. For too long we’ve heard a false set of endlessly repeated talking points that tell us school choice is devastating local communities and closing schools. The truth is otherwise, and in fact, school choice has been a saving grace for tens of thousands of Hoosier families. Moreover, it has offered a second lease on life to communities like Gary who have failed their children and otherwise face endless decline.
Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.