When Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson introduces herself at education conferences, she is sometimes greeted with eyerolls and sarcastic responses.
“People will say to me, 'Gee, thanks a lot,' because I'm from Indiana,” Robinson said while sitting in the district headquarters in Fort Wayne in August.
The educators don't have innate hostility toward Indiana, but they see how the Hoosier State's education policy is influencing the country – and they don't like it.
Indiana is home to the largest school voucher program in the country, allowing nearly 35,000 kids to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded scholarships. In its six years of existence, the program has become a lightning rod for controversy.
On one end of the spectrum, right-leaning federal policymakers look to Indiana as a model of what's possible for private school choice. Vice President Mike Pence championed its expansion when he was Indiana's governor, and President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have made the expansion of private school choice programs their signature education goal.
But for public school educators like Robinson, the idea that the program might be seen as a model to be replicated is unacceptable. She thinks the voucher program represents a solution to something that was never a problem.
Only a small minority of students who choose vouchers previously attended failing public schools, and many of the students who receive vouchers never attended public schools, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. Instead, taxpayers are footing the tuition bill for children who may have otherwise paid for private schools, while public schools are simultaneously drained of resources, Robinson said.
Proponents of voucher programs say this criticism misses the point. The goal is to provide non-affluent students with the same exact educational options as rich kids.
“We want to focus less on school type and more on giving parents the power to choose where they want to go to school,” said Robert Enlow, president of the education choice group EdChoice, based in Indianapolis.
Indiana's program was adopted in 2011 amid a wave of private school choice expansion around the country. Voucher programs are the most extreme of private school choice options – directly funneling millions of taxpayer dollars into scholarships for mostly religious private schools.
Among states, it is also popular to enact tax credit programs that give tax credits to individuals or corporations when they donate to scholarship-granting nonprofit organizations. These organizations in turn foot the tuition bills for students' private schools, similar to voucher programs.
Currently, 27 states have private school choice programs, with 14 states and the District of Columbia enacting traditional voucher programs, per the National Conference of State Legislatures.
DeVos has floated integrating parts of these models into a national program that would help more children attend private schools. So far, though, her efforts have fallen flat.
The idea that a program like Indiana's might be expanded at the national level threatens local activists who have watched it evolve. The program initially targeted the poorest of children. Over the years, though, the income eligibility requirements broadened, making it so more affluent families could also use public money to escape their local public schools, according to former Fort Wayne teacher Phyllis Bush, who now advocates against vouchers.
“I think for our state legislature – the dirty little secret is they're setting up a two-tiered system,” Bush said. “If you go back through all the history of what happened, none of this was accidental.”
For school choice advocates who work to enact programs like Indiana's, the state is a bright spot in a country where enthusiasm for private school choice policies seems to be growing. In 2011, when Indiana's program was enacted, 16 states and the District of Columbia had at least one private school choice programs. Five years later, this number had grown to 27.
Indiana has always been a “hotbed for education reform,” says Enlow, and so far, he is pleased with how the voucher program has progressed. Beyond Indiana, he also points to Florida, North Carolina and Arizona as leaders in this area, although their programs all differ in size and scope.
Enlow enjoys the attention and support Indiana's voucher program is getting amid the choice-friendly Trump administration, but he is not counting on it forever.
“This movement has been here long before Betsy DeVos was in charge and will be here long after Betsy DeVos is in charge,” Enlow said.
Bush is also enjoying the attention Indiana's program has been receiving, but for different reasons.
As more public school students have left for private schools, it has drained traditional districts of resources and bodies, Bush said. She warns activists in other states to take heed of a pattern she sees as a deliberate effort to decimate public schools.
“It's starting to matter to more people but it's too late because the damage has been done,” she said. “If it wasn't for Mike Pence, I don't think anyone would realize we're in the center of hell.”