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Web letter by Patrick J. Wiltshire: School vouchers represent unconscionable scheme to tear down public education

Indiana taxpayers should voice their strong objections to House Bill 1003 regarding school scholarships and especially the dangerous expansion of school vouchers.

I am not a professional educator, but I am a lifelong Indiana resident and obtained my primary education from a private school system and my higher education from our excellent state university system. My children were educated in a public district that is fortunate to be located in one of the wealthiest geographic segments in the state. I volunteer as a Junior Achievement economics business adviser, I offer free tutoring services to young adults preparing for the G.E.D. exam, and, my wife and I pay federal, state and local taxes which fund public education.

While I consider myself generally a supporter of a strong and accountable public education system, I am also a cautious supporter of a limited school voucher system for grades PreK-12. This should be limited to parents who are clearly unable to afford to send their children to a private school. It should not take into account the performance of the corresponding public schools available to the parents’ children, because all past, current and proposed state measures of school performance are deeply flawed and cannot be relied upon.

Why? Because the kernel of the argument in favor of school vouchers is “school choice.” It should not matter what some bureaucrat at the Department of Education thinks about a particular public school or school district as an option. The only thing that matters is what the parents and children think. To add any more to that calculus of school choice introduces a state bias toward private schools, and that is plain wrong. Such a campaign codified in our laws is a thinly veiled scheme to shift public education funding to private for-profit and non-profit interests. In other words, it’s no different than the road building lobby seeking access to public funds to build and maintain roads.

It is massively ironic that a conservative Republican-dominated Indiana legislature supports a system that relies on a state government apparatchik to grade schools using inconsistent and unproven means so parents can choose the best option for their children. That is not supporting choice – that is introducing bias into the decision-making process to advance private school interests.

Secondly, and this cannot be emphasized enough: The state of Indiana cannot afford this! It was only one biennial budget ago that the legislature and its governor cut hundreds of millions of dollars from public education. But because of those cuts, as well as many others, some budgetary sleights of hand and an economy that is slowly recovering, Indiana is no longer staring down the barrel of the massive potential deficits of 2009 and 2010. The cost estimates of this bill have ranged from $30 million to $50 million a year, or 70 percent of the 1 percent increase in funding proposed by Gov. Mike Pence.

Not only that, virtually all that money would go to private schools – and none of it to public schools. That is not only wrong as bad public policy, it is an immoral bait-and-switch maneuver to tear down public schools in order to finance private schools. And, once more, it is massively ironic that our Republican-dominated legislature would create a brand new middle-class welfare entitlement program that is sure to grow to cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year. I’m reminded of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit introduced by the Bush administration.

Third, I simply do not support the unbridled payment of state education dollars to religious institutions that run parochial schools. I say “unbridled” only because I view the inclusion of parochial schools in the community of private schools available to parents to use their vouchers as necessary to make the program workable. To exclude religious schools would make vouchers nearly worthless – there wouldn’t be enough private school options. This, however, is a far cry from opening the voucher spigot, resulting in the transfer of a far greater percentage of public education funds to parochial schools, none of which are subject to the stringent open admissions and other requirements heaped on public schools. At this point, the primary purpose of the voucher program becomes that of funding private schools, including parochial schools, and not that of helping disadvantaged children gain access to educational options. I leave it to the Indiana Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of such as scheme, but I for one will never be convinced that it is.

Fourth, just imagine what would happen to the financial stability of our state if our tax code were constantly subjected to wave after wave of legislation intended to “reform” the tax code? Can you imagine the havoc that would prevail if changes to the tax code weren’t evaluated over at least a biennium before their effects on revenue could be measured? Our Indiana legislators and our governor would never stand for it. And they should not stand for HB1003 and the dozens of other pending bills that will have similar disastrous effects on public education. It is fiscally irresponsible, morally objectionable and unacceptable. No further changes to pre-K-12 public education should be adopted in 2013, except those that can create or expand Pre-K education or those that can undo previously implemented school reform legislation that has already proven to be ineffective and/or harmful.

I believe most Indiana citizens support the idea that the education of Indiana children depends on a healthy educational environment that includes both private and public schools. However, I do not support the notion that middle-class parents who choose to send their kids to a private school should be subsidized just because they may also pay taxes that support public schools. I say may because not all taxpayers pay in what it costs to educate a child in our public schools. By this logic, as a retiree with no children in school, I too should qualify for a number of school vouchers corresponding with the percentage I pay in state taxes that are spent on K-12 education, divided by the current per-student state expenditure, and then have the freedom to confer my vouchers on any students and schools of my choosing. But that would just be silly. And so is creating a scheme to divert public education funding to private interests. It does nothing to improve public education performance and in fact will have the exact opposite effect. Unfortunately, this is what the proponents of this bill have as their objective.