Monday’s school choice rally at the Statehouse packed a powerful energy boost for Indiana lawmakers considering a sweeping expansion of the nation’s most expansive voucher program.
Hundreds of students in brightly colored T-shirts cheered, sang, rapped and danced to promote their private, parochial and charter schools. Basketball standout Jalen Rose added superstar luster, boasting of the Detroit charter school he founded for troubled high school students, while top Republican officeholders proclaimed their unwavering faith in school choice.
And now, the rest of the story.
Those vibrant blue T-shirts, slick banners and signs carried the names of sponsors, including Americans for Prosperity, the conservative interest group supported by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and the American Federation for Children, whose funders include Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos.
The Jalen Rose Leadership Academy is hardly the model of school excellence. The Detroit Free Press reported the school was on its third principal after just one year. While there was money to fly students to a basketball camp in Las Vegas, much of the school’s computer equipment was in disrepair by mid-year, and students had to clean lab equipment in restrooms because the science classrooms had no sinks. Rose, a former member of the NBA Players Association, told the newspaper he was glad he didn’t have to deal with unions and had the flexibility to hire and fire staff. None of the charter school teachers returned last fall for a second year – three left mid-year with no explanation.
Noticeably absent from the Statehouse rally was Indiana’s top elected school official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. She wasn’t invited, her spokesman said, even though the candidate she handily defeated in November, Tony Bennett, was a prominent voice at the 2012 event. His role fell to the newly elected governor.
I truly believe if we put kids first, if we give parents more choices, and teachers more freedom to teach, education in Indiana will continue to rock and it will continue to open doors of hope and opportunity for this generation and the next, Gov. Mike Pence told the cheering crowd.
But no data exist to support the claims. A decade of taxpayer-funded charter-school experience in Indiana has shown mixed academic results. Three of Fort Wayne’s five charter schools are targeted for closing this year. Millions of dollars have been diverted not to instruct charter school students but, in some cases, to pay out-of-state real estate investors and for-profit education management groups.
The year-old voucher program, still under constitutional review, hasn’t produced enough evidence to justify a major expansion. While high-achieving parochial schools continued to excel after accepting hand-picked voucher students, taxpayers also paid for students to move from successful public schools to some F-rated Christian schools.
The charter school students at Monday’s rally surely don’t realize the expanded choice they helped promote will pull more dollars and more parental support from public schools. House Bill 1003 increases the minimum voucher payment to $5,500 by 2015. It allows all kindergarteners from income-eligible families to receive a voucher, as well as the children of veterans currently attending private schools. Special education students in private schools also would qualify. Foster children in income-eligible families would qualify, along with the siblings of all children currently receiving a voucher, regardless of whether they ever attended a public school.
The current state budget proposal promises to bolster school funding by 2 percent overall – some school districts would receive less. Voucher dollars available to private schools would increase by 11 percent.
Combined, the Legislative Services Agency estimates the expanded provisions of HB 1003 will cost Indiana taxpayers $21 million next year – not from a separate voucher fund, but drawn from school tuition support among all Indiana schools.
The voucher bill has been assigned to Sen. Dennis Kruse’s Education and Career Development Committee. Another rally, this one organized by a growing and enthusiastic group of public education supporters, is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Statehouse. Don’t expect slick posters and T-shirts provided by out-of-state interest groups, but do expect a passionate crowd, eager to share the rest of the story.