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Learning Curve

  • An F for transparency
    “Look at this shiny thing over here!” – Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, Oct. 14, 2014.

Bad math: Equating public schools and welfare

Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, gave voucher proponent Robert Enlow a math lesson he won't likely forget.

The occasion was a panel discussion Friday following the Indianapolis premiere of Rise Above the Mark, a documentary produced by JacKlink Productions for West Lafayette Community Schools. An audience of about 2,200 -- many of them educators -- filled Clowes Hall at Butler University for the event.

The documentary (full disclosure: The filmmakers interviewed me and my comments are included) focuses on the effects of so-called education reform measures on public schools. It's not a flattering representation of the privatization push, but the audience's enthusiastic response proved it was a perspective lacking in public discourse.

The panel discussion featured FWCS's Robinson; Enlow, director of the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice; education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch; David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust; and Greg Lineweaver, chairman of the English department at North Central High School.

Enlow and Harris deserve some credit for agreeing to appear on the panel, but their message didn't play with an audience clearly attuned to the effects of privatization on Indiana's public schools.

The exchange that brought the audience to its feet began with Ravitch stating that schools should not be a "consumer choice" but supported as a civic obligation, as police and fire protection services are supported.

Enlow responded by noting that food stamp recipients are allowed to choose where they can go to use their assistance.

"I agree we have a civic obligation for public education -- again, like we have a civic obligation for food stamps, right?" he said. "We have to help those who earn less."

It was more than Robinson could take.

"I have to say something -- I'm sorry. It's insulting to equate public education with food stamps," she said, as the audience erupted in thunderous applause. "Here's why: Public education was created for the public good. Food stamps and welfare are created for people who are in need. When you say they are the same, you are assuming all kids in public school are in need."

Robinson criticized language that brands public and, particularly, urban schools as failing.

"Yes, it's the law of the land," the superintendent said of vouchers. "We're going to have vouchers and charters and privatization until it collapses on its own."

She also acknowledged Enlow's point that businesses always have been involved in education.

"Yes, we spend billions on education," Robinson said. "Which is why businesses want to get involved -- because it's where the money is."

She noted that a bill filed in the current legislative session would have exempted voucher schools from testing requirements placed on public schools.

"Make every charter and parochial school as accountable as I am, she said, to more applause. "If you're going to have two separate and unequal systems, then fund them separately."

One other point that shouldn't go without note: Enlow insisted at one point in the discussion that he wasn't making money off privatization. But he and Harris are well compensated for their work. IRS 990 forms for The Mind Trust and Friedman Foundation show that each earned more than $200,000 in 2012.

That's comparable to the salary paid to Robinson, a 40-year educator with a doctorate in educational administration. Harris and Enlow operate small nonprofit organizations supported by foundation gifts and grants. Robinson oversees a school district with 31,000 students, an annual budget of $275 million, 4,000-plus employees and massive transportation, food service and health programs.

Relatively speaking, I would suggest Enlow is doing quite well by privatization.

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