Republican state lawmakers have had a lot of explaining to do over votes that many of their constituents rightly view as anti-public education. Some have answered in personal messages (some not so politely, according to responses posted by teachers on social networking sites). Others have responded publicly and thoughtfully, in op-ed articles and in letters to constituents.
Republican Matt Lehman, a second-term representative from Berne, offers an explanation for his support of the voucher bill in an op-ed piece submitted to The Journal Gazette. He writes of the union rallies that shook the Statehouse during the Democratic walkout, commending the protesters for their participation, but notes that a very different rally took place Wednesday, involving pro-voucher and pro-charter school supporters.
"The supporters for school choice were just as boisterous as the union members who had rallied in the weeks prior," Lehman writes. "The only difference was that I was not looking at disgruntled adults, but into the faces of kids who were looking for hope. I talked to parents who wanted nothing more than for their kids to have the best education possible. The status quo was not going to save their children from a school that fails to graduate half of their student body."
First, let's correct one thing: If Lehman were to look at state data, he would learn that the handful of Indiana schools failing to "graduate half of their student body" are all alternative schools and charter schools where, arguably, some of the best teaching in the state is happening. If the Options Charter School in Carmel manages to graduate 24 of the 62 seniors who would otherwise be dropouts at Carmel High School, it's doing quite well. Admission at these schools is voluntary – students aren't enrolled there by neighborhood assignment.
But Lehman has a point when he makes note of the "faces of kids" versus "disgruntled adults." Supporters have done a poor job of putting a face on their case for public education. The children at the school choice rally didn't show up on their own; they were part of an orchestrated effort that public school supporters need to make themselves.
There's something sleazy about using children as props in a political debate, but supporters should at least demand their representatives visit the special education classrooms serving students who are barely communicative. Ask the representatives what private or parochial school has a voucher available for those students. Ask them which schools have a voucher available for the student who sometimes sleeps in a car or on a relative's floor because her family is homeless. What private school is eager to enroll the student falling asleep in class – the one who works from after school until midnight helping support a family?
The dedicated public school teachers I know wouldn't drag such students to the Statehouse and put them on display, but I suspect those same teachers are eager to vote next year and prove they really aren't interested in protecting the status quo.