U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited a high-performing private Indianapolis high school Tuesday, where nearly every student receives a voucher. She toured Providence Cristo Rey High School on a fact-finding mission and meet students and staff.
DeVos’ school visit follows a Monday speech in Indianapolis where she alluded to “an ambitious” federal expansion of school choice. DeVos did not lay out details of what a federal program could look like.
Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program currently gives over 30,000 students state money for private school. It’s the largest voucher program of its kind in the country.
At the school, DeVos would not answer questions from reporters, but an education department spokesperson says DeVos is impressed with Indiana’s program.
“Indiana’s voucher program has given students great opportunities to find education that works best for them, and Cristo Rey is a shining example of that,” says Liz Hill, U.S. Education Department press secretary. “The voucher program has really opened up opportunities for low-income and vulnerable students.”
Providence Cristo Rey’s focus on exactly those students — low-income, minority students with college ambitions — makes it an anomaly in Indiana’s school choice landscape. While politicians at the state and federal level tout vouchers as a tool to help this demographic escape failing schools, fewer than 1 percent of Indiana voucher students got a voucher for this reason, according to state data.
And as Indiana’s voucher program has evolved since its introduction in 2011, recipients are increasingly suburban and middle class. Since 2014, most Indiana voucher students have never previously attended a public school, according to state data.
At the school, students and staff highlighted an internship program that pairs Provicence Cristo Rey students with placements at corporations like Eli Lilly. As students shared their workplace experiences and results of personality tests they took, DeVos said she’s been very interested in introversion and extroversion.
“I’ve learned over the years you can be very confident in your exchanges with people, but if you get energy from being with people that would be more an extroverted tendency,” DeVos told onlooking students. “But if being with people and engaging with them is more draining, and you get your energy back by being quiet and more alone, that would be a tendency around introversion. It’s just a little bit of what I’ve learned about that over the years.”
Like many Indiana voucher-accepting schools in the Choice Scholarship program, Providence Cristo Rey serves a far lower rate of special education students than the districts they draw students from.
About 17 percent of Indianapolis public school students have special education needs. Providence Cristo Rey does not teach a single student with special education needs, according to state data.
Joe Heidt, president and CEO of Providence Cristo Rey, says the school isn’t geared to provide such services and families know it.
“What we share with them is ‘here is the services of which we provide’ and ‘here’s what we’re able to accommodate’ and we really implore families to make the best decision,” Heidt says.
Public schools must teach all students regardless of ability.
DeVos’ school visit came the same day the Trump administration released the fiscal year 2018 budget. The budget would eliminate federal funding for community learning centers, comprehensive literacy developments and teacher training. As a result, Indiana could expect to face a 13 percent reduction in federal Title II funds for teacher training.