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The Journal Gazette

Friday, January 26, 2018 1:00 am

Time magnifies privatization's failures

Michael Shaffer, John Ellis and Jeff Swensson

On the web

“Hoosier Lawmaker? Vouchers, ALEC Legislative Puppets, and Indiana's Abdication of Democracy” can be read at:

“Getting poor kids out of failing schools” sounds like an altruistic and worthy cause that all Hoosiers can and perhaps should support. Since 2009, the voucher approach to school choice in Indiana has wrapped itself in this cloak.

Indiana's dedication to vouchers, however, is heavy on sloganeering but light on its proclaimed delivery. The goal ballyhooed by proponents of Indiana's vouchers – creating more efficient, cost-effective schooling for children who need it most – is a mirage established by political maneuvering and ideological shenanigans.

From the days of Gov. Mitch Daniels and his counterpart Tony Bennett, superintendent of public instruction, through Govs. Mike Pence and now Eric Holcomb, the political push on behalf of vouchers is part of a concentrated effort to accomplish several objectives:

• the destruction of traditional public education;

• the replacement of Indiana's existing schools with supposedly less-expensive privatization; and

• the elimination of the power and influence of locally elected school boards and/or teachers' associations.

Lurking behind the overt actions taken by the Indiana legislature to reach these objectives is a national organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, dedicated to reaching these objectives regardless of the effect on Indiana's students.

ALEC's well-heeled members include large corporations and 25 percent of all state legislators in the nation. They collaborate to design sample legislation that leads to less government. Less government, among other things, means that traditional public education earns a seal of disapproval from ALEC.

Legislators from Indiana who are members of ALEC toe the organization's ideological line with enthusiasm. Indiana's elected leaders have made tremendous financial cuts to traditional public education during the past decade. At the same time, Hoosier lawmakers have poured more than $520 million into Indiana's voucher program, the largest private school voucher program in the country. This legislative surge and torrent of cash in support of privatization in Indiana – including both private and charter schools – has failed to establish better student achievement. Moreover, the frenzy for privatization has left Indiana's poor and minority students out of the loop while providing payment of private school tuition to families that can already afford it. Indiana's legislation that created this imbalance mirrors ALEC's model bills sometimes nearly word for word.

The numbers show the devastating impact of Indiana's allegiance to ALEC's agenda. Dollars that fund the state's voucher program pay for private school tuition at schools that are 98 percent religiously affiliated. As of the 2016-17 school year, 54 percent of the students receiving vouchers to attend a private school of their choice had never attended a public school. (Among many other broken promises in Indiana's rush to privatization, it was first presented to the legislature and the public that traditional public schools would get the first chance to prove they could meet the needs of all students. To this end, privatization legislation originally required that all students would have to attend a traditional public school for a full school year before becoming eligible for vouchers. That requirement no longer exists.) In terms of cost, although the original premise of privatization was that it would save the state money, this supposed educational efficiency cost the state more than $146 million last year alone.

Perhaps the saddest failure of all is that the voucher program in Indiana no longer pretends to serve “poor kids.” Family income to qualify for the program has increased to nearly $90,000 for a family of four. Students with disabilities are often told by voucher schools, “We do not have a program that meets your needs.” Parents who do choose to send their children to the few voucher schools offering special education services are finding they are forced to abandon parental rights to contest placement, services or disciplinary decisions and are provided instruction far below the quality offered by traditional public schools.


Michael Shaffer, John Ellis and Jeff Swensson wrote about the American Legislative Exchange Council's influence on Indiana education policy in an article published in the latest issue of the AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, a publication of the School Superintendents Association. Each has served as a school- and district-level leader in public education and as an assistant professor in educational leadership at Ball State University.