Karen Francisco, editorial page editor of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in Indiana, reviews the state’s disastrous experiment with vouchers. In 2011, state lawmakers started the voucher program with the promise of helping low-income children get better schooling. As time has passed, the income level for eligibility has gone up, the costs have gone up, but the vouchers have never fulfilled their promise. Instead, they have become a permanent drain on public school funding even as the schools remain unaccountable and non-transparent. Over time, they have become a subsidy for private school parents who never sent their children to public schools and never intended to. Over time, they have developed a strong political constituency in the legislature that is unwilling to hold voucher schools accountable for performance.

The Choice Scholarship Program annual report – quietly released by the Indiana Department of Education late last month – shows voucher participation grew by 4.9 percent this year, while the cost grew by 8.4 percent, topping $146 million for the 2016-17 school year. The percentage of voucher students who have never attended a public school also grew, to 54.6 percent. The state improbably claims that it is saving money by sending children to voucher schools, but most of these students would never have attended public schools anyway.

The voucher program has turned into an entitlement for middle-income and low-income families to send their child to a religious school at public expense, and for some, a means of white flight from diverse public schools.

The results of the millions of dollars spent on vouchers are not easily obtained, but they are unimpressive and troubling:

Indiana lawmakers have mostly abandoned the pretense of helping struggling students in favor of an argument that parents should be allowed to choose the best schools for their children. But their failure to hold voucher schools accountable leaves parents without the information they need.

In Fort Wayne, Horizon Christian Academy III earned letter grades of D in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, as enrollment grew from 236 last year to 433 this year. Voucher payments to the Wells Street school increased from $1.14 million last year to $2.43 million this year. At Cornerstone College Prep, voucher funding grew from $631,000 to more than $687,000 this year, even as voucher enrollment fell from 127 students to 122 this year and the school earned an F on its school report card. Its earlier performance results are shielded by student privacy law and no information is available about teacher certification. Only public schools are required to report information about educator evaluations, student performance on college aptitude exams and more.

Transparency is in short supply at voucher schools. Cornerstone’s address is listed as a post office box and its website has been disabled, although a woman answering the phone confirmed the school is at 3501 Harris Road, at Destiny Dome Embassy at Cathedral of Praise Ministries International.

Voucher schools are not subject to public access or open records law; they agree only to “cooperate” in an audit of school records.

When Indiana became a pioneer in so-called school choice, research on the effectiveness of voucher programs was slim, as there were too few subjects to study. Milwaukee was the first major city with a voucher program; Cleveland and Washington, D.C., later adopted programs. Florida had a voucher program for special education students.

Indiana, a follower in almost every other policy area, became the first to approve a statewide voucher program open to all income-eligible students. As large voucher programs developed in Louisiana and Ohio, the data available to study effectiveness have grown.

The results are poor.

• In Ohio, the pro-voucher Fordham Institute commissioned a Northwestern University research team to study the state’s choice program. It found voucher students tend to be more economically advantaged and higher-performing academically when they enter private schools, but they post worse educational results than their peers who stayed behind in public schools.

• In Louisiana, a major study found voucher students – predominantly black, from low-income families and coming from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state – posted disastrous results. Students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school fell to the 26th percentile in a single year.

Results were still well below the starting point in the second year.

• A report released last week by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School concluded this of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Grant Program: “Based on limited and early data, more than half the students using vouchers are performing below average on nationally standardized reading, language, and math tests. In contrast, similar public school students in North Carolina are scoring above the national average.”

• Mark Dynarski of the Brookings Institution summarized large-scale research done on the Indiana and Louisiana voucher programs to find public school students who received vouchers scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students who remained in public schools.

“The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large,” Dynarski wrote. “In education as in medicine, ‘first, do no harm’ is a powerful guiding principle. A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction.”

The accumulating research about the negative effects of vouchers doesn’t matter to Indiana legislators. Indiana already has the largest voucher program in the nation, and the legislature wants to make it even bigger.

Indiana lawmakers aren’t backing down, however. The state has almost 20 percent of the nation’s 178,000 voucher students, yet there were multiple bills filed in this legislative session to increase the eligibility pathways for a voucher. The most noxious is attached to the preschool pilot program expansion.

The House version of the bill makes any child who receives an On My Way Preschool grant as a 4-year-old eligible for vouchers for the next 13 years, provided their families meet the generous income eligibility guidelines (up to $91,020 a year for a family of four next year). The estimated cost? Another $10.5 million added annually to the nation’s most costly voucher program.

A powerful school voucher lobby maintains a tight grip on Indiana’s legislative leaders, who in turn maintain a tight grip on the GOP House and Senate caucuses.

There are many more public school parents than voucher school parents. Why don’t they hold their legislators accountable for transferring public funds to religious schools that get worse results than public schools? Why continue to give public money to failing private schools? Indiana was once known for its community public schools. Soon, it will be known as a national laughing stock for its dedication to a failed idea: vouchers for failing private and religious schools.