In-depth NPR analysis of Indiana voucher program mostly gets education, but not religion

Fifteen to 20 years ago, I was much better educated on school choice trends than I am now.

While covering public schools for The Oklahoman in 1999, I did a months-long special project — as part of an Education Writers Association national fellowship — titled "Winners & Losers: School Choice in Oklahoma City." I also covered the school voucher debate that still rages today.

Given my background — ancient as it may be — in education writing, I was interested in an in-depth package that NPR ran last week exploring "The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers" in Indiana:

At first blush, the NPR report struck me as tilted toward the anti-voucher side, partly because of the lede favoring a public school official:

Wendy Robinson wants to make one thing very clear.
As the long-serving superintendent of Fort Wayne public schools, Indiana's largest district, she is not afraid of competition from private schools.
"We've been talking choice in this community and in this school system for almost 40 years," Robinson says. Her downtown office sits in the shadow of the city's grand, Civil War-era Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. In Fort Wayne, a parking lot is the only thing that separates the beating heart of Catholic life from the brains of the city's public schools.
In fact, steeples dominate the skyline of the so-called City of Churches. Fort Wayne has long been a vibrant religious hub, home to more than 350 churches, many of which also run their own schools.
While the city's public and private schools managed, for decades, to co-exist amicably, that changed in 2011, Robinson says. That's when state lawmakers began the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, a plan to allow low-income students to use vouchers, paid for with public school dollars, to attend private, generally religious schools.
Six years later, Indiana's statewide voucher program is now the largest of its kind in the country and, with President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos openly encouraging states to embrace private school choice, the story of the Choice Scholarship — how it came to be, how it works and whom it serves — has become a national story of freedom, faith, poverty and politics.

That phrase "paid for with public school dollars" also hit me the wrong way. My question for NPR: Are those "public school dollars" or "taxpayer dollars?" If I'm a parent who pays taxes, why shouldn't I be able to choose where I want my education money to go — be it a public school or a public one?

So honestly, my first impression of the NPR report wasn't positive. But in an email thread among the GetReligion team, my colleague Julia Duin said she liked it:

I read this story and was impressed by its length and depth and fair treatment of both sides. Must say I come down on the side of the public schools as my daughter got kicked out of a (private of course) Montessori school because of her special needs. They treated her - and me - like dirt. Years later, I’m still bitter about it.

Given Duin's comment, I read the piece again. And I decided that maybe I was too critical in my initial assessment. While one gets the overall impression from the piece that NPR is no fan of vouchers, the reporters do quote sources on both sides and provide a gigantic load of information and data that readers can use to form their own conclusions about the voucher system.

So on the question of whether NPR gets education, I'm willing to give the report a passing grade — better than passing, actually.

But does this story GetReligion? A little bit.

I mean, NPR includes some relevant background on the ability of Christian schools to adhere to their religious standards:

In its online admissions packet, Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington lays out its expectations of students. It lists "behaviors prohibited in the Bible" to include "homosexual or bisexual activity or any form of sexual immorality" and "practicing alternate gender identity or any other identity or behavior that violates God's ordained distinctions between the two sexes, male and female."
The school then makes clear that, "in situations in which the home life violates these standards, LCA reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student."
Lighthouse received $665,400 in state voucher dollars this year.
The 2011 voucher law prohibited the state from regulating "curriculum content, religious instruction or activities, classroom teaching, teacher and staff hiring requirements, and other activities carried out by the eligible school."

On the other hand, the story seems to scrimp on the religious motivations — as opposed to academic ones — that draw many voucher families away from public schools (or cause them never to choose public schools in the first place).

This paragraph near the end could benefit some more delving, it seems to me:

An EdChoice survey of voucher parents, conducted last summer, is instructive. Among the top-five reasons parents cited for enrolling their child in a private school, "better academics" ranked second, not first. At the top of the list was "religious environment/instruction."

This is one of those stories — I will stress — that is so in-depth and weighty that I no doubt overlooked positive and negative attributes even in my two full readings.

By all means, check it out and tell me what I missed.

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