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The myth of failing schools

If Glenda Ritz's election as superintendent of public instruction didn't catch Indiana lawmakers' attention, you would think comments from their own constituents might.

School vouchers will "kill public education," a county councilman from Union County told Republican lawmakers Jud McMillin and Allen Paul at a legislative breakfast last weekend in tiny Liberty, Ind.

No, insisted McMillin, the state's voucher program will continue and will be expanded.

Why? Because, "inner-city students assigned to failing schools have no alternatives for a better education without the voucher program," McMillin told the Farm Bureau gathering.

I don't know what Rep. McMillin knows about urban schools, but he's repeating a line that seems to satisfy too many public education advocates. Faced with the assertion that someone else's schools are failing, they back off in defending their own.

It's a handy tool for pushing through all sorts of anti-public education measures. It's also wrong and mean-spirited.

Consider McMillin's own local school district, Franklin County Community Schools. Its 2011 senior class recorded a graduation rate of 84.5 percent. How's that compare to the urban Fort Wayne Community Schools' class of 2011? Its graduation rate was 88.1 percent.

Districtwide, FWCS also outperforms Franklin County Community Schools on the ISTEP+ passing rate.

But according to McMillin, FWCS students need an altenative to their "failing" schools. So far, about 1,165 students have used a voucher to escape the Fort Wayne district, with destructive financial effects for students left behind.

Perhaps when some private-school alternatives present themselves to students in Franklin County, McMillin and his colleagues will begin to see that vouchers have nothing to do with failing schools – no requirement ever existed to limit their use to students in particular schools. In Fort Wayne, an A-rated school lost one of the highest percentages of students to vouchers.

John Harris Loflin speaks truth to power in Indianapolis, where even some IPS school board members write off their own district as failing. He's written an excellent article for NUVO, examining not just the failing label, but the underlying reason the urban district doesn't hold up to its suburban counterparts.

"Here's the question: Has our public school system ever made its actual mission to educate all children equally and effectively? The obvious answer is no," Loflin writes. "Reality reveals decades of fiscal, political, and structural policies which deliberately undercut and demean urban public schools. This doesn't excuse poor academic outcomes in many urban schools, but suggests advancing past 20th century ideas based on fixing failure.' "

The parent trigger bill approved today on a party-line vote in the House Education Committee gives the so-called reformers yet another way to "fix" failing schools. As long as its proponents continue to effectively fool McMillin and others, they can perpetuate the myth they are doing the right thing for urban students and not just killing public education.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at