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Web letter by Mike Walsh: Vouchers help fulfill public schools’ prophecy of failure

Public schools have been under attack for more than 50 years beginning with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which saw the immediate introduction of vouchers by southern states. They were used as a way to fund white-only academies to avoid integrating their schools. Some public schools were actually closed during this era. Sadly, in Indiana the Neighborhood Schools formed a voucher plan in the ’70s in opposition to the court’s desegregation order to bus students to achieve integration.

Then in 1983 “A Nation at Risk” was published, and it ignited the reform movement by providing the impetus for assaulting public education. The mantra of failure was born. The clamor for vouchers began literally only days after its release. Now after 30 years of vouchers, the preponderance of credible research shows virtually no effect in raising student achievement above public-school level, but, regardless, the Indiana legislature adopted the nation’s most far-reaching voucher program to provide “choice,” not the original promise of academic achievement, for parents to leave public schools while draining vital dollars from them.

Certainly some public schools fail – so do some “reputable” banks and businesses. And where do most schools fail? Overwhelmingly in the centers of impoverished urban metropolitan areas with their histories of civic neglect, poverty and the accompanying social problems manifested by them. But do you really believe that our entire public school system is broken and can be corrected primarily by supporting private and sectarian schooling with vouchers? Do you believe that your local school is a failure? Are you prepared for the onslaught of new rules by the Indiana Department of Education which will establish continuing failure by some students and schools every year, including a state reading test for third graders that can require retention in grade? Local control of your schools is being eroded systematically.

The egalitarian assertion, misleadingly false, asserted that with vouchers poor families would be the primary beneficiaries of choice by providing them with the same advantages of the wealthy in choosing their school. If that were true, the poor and special-needs children could all choose any private qualifying school and be admitted. However, private schools are free to set their own exclusive selection policies, admission standards and tuition rates. They are free to limit vacancy. Students can be excluded for reasons such as “Not enough room,” “No ESL or special education teachers,” “Probably not a good fit,” etc. Public schools must accept 100 percent of the students who come to enroll. There is no tuition. There are no selective standards, nor should there be, as they meet the constitutional mandate to provide a general and uniform education to all. Public schools do not teach or promote religious ideology or doctrine, nor should they. The Constitution says so. Religious schools accepting state tax-financed vouchers remain free to exercise their denominational beliefs through instruction.

Some 90 percent of Indiana’s 2011-12 vouchers went to sectarian religious schools. With an average value of $4,150 per voucher, the 3,919 voucher students cost Indiana public school districts more than $16 million. The state is delighted because this is less than the public school per-pupil cost and the state keeps the difference between the voucher cost and the balance of the state per-pupil support owed the school corporation.

Indiana’s law explicitly prohibits regulation of private sectarian schools. They operate without excessive interference from the government. Transparency and open records requirements are not the same as for public schools. Inquiries into religious doctrine are off limits.

The terrible downside to this is that the public schools lose money which supports the programs most parents and students value: the extracurriculars of band, chorus, theater, newspaper, yearbook, educational field trips, athletic and academic teams and their coaches. Art, PE and elective music classes are usually the first of the curricular cuts. Money that reduces class size, allows creation of new courses, pays for educational development, and provides support and remediation for students is reduced, if not lost, as costs for everything increase regardless.

To counter the charge that public tax dollars go to religious schools, which is prohibited by the Constitution, the governor, the legislature and the IDOE used the egregious argument that voucher money doesn’t go directly to the private school; it goes to the parents who then sign it over to the school. A rose by any other name ...

The Indiana legislature with the governor’s approval and that of our current political leaders, has joined the chorus in repeating “failure, failure, failure” and “crisis, crisis, crisis.” That was used to pass the Choice “Scholarship” (vouchers) law along with the School Expenditure Deduction which allows parents of privately schooled children to deduct enrollment expenditures up to $1,000 from their taxes. This includes the cost of textbooks, which is not a benefit allowed public school parents.

Our 1851 constitution states that knowledge and learning are essential to our free government, and the General Assembly has the duty to provide a general and uniform system of common (not private, not sectarian) schools wherein tuition will not be charged and which will be open equally to all. Since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and continuing to this day, our democracy and our American culture rest on a system of public schools open to each child, not on an exclusive private selective system supported by taxpayer dollars.

James Conant said that “the greater the proportion of our youth who attend independent (private) schools, the greater the threat to our democratic unity.” He was right. Our democracy will survive and prosper only when all of its citizens are educated, which is what our public schools do well.

Your schools are being assaulted. Newly passed rules are so structured that failure is ensured for some students, teachers and schools continually, which fulfills the prophecy of constant failure. Do not let this happen. Inform yourselves. Contact your representatives and senators. Find out who your IDOE representative is and ask questions. And above all make your voice heard. Keep control of your local public schools.

MIKE WALSH

Bloomington

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