The Journal Gazette
Sunday, February 21, 2021 1:00 am

Vouchers undermine education for all kids

Private schools don't justify money shift

Robert Stwalley

The Republican supermajority in the Indiana General Assembly is attempting to quietly gut public education and hope no one notices.

This work started a decade ago when the legislature drank the Kool-Aid of the American Legislative Exchange Council. This group and others like it loves to toss around terms such as “school choice,” “educational competition” and “stimulation of excellence,” but these are actually code words that obfuscate the outright looting of state dollars that support the education of schoolchildren.

The absurdity of the ALEC proposition is that parents in Indiana and many other states have always had choice in schooling. The laws clearly state that children only need be in a school. No one is forced to utilize any particular school. This issue is really about who pays for the schooling.

School choice advocates would have you believe that money should follow the child because this platitude is simple and seems to make sense on the surface. However, this is completely untrue and detrimental to the overall concept of a tuition-free public school system.

Taxes are collected from everyone to support government activities. Public schools are government entities designed to improve society by providing a practical education for the young citizens of tomorrow. Everyone is better off with an educated populace.

School funding does not support any individual child, but the overall public school system. Siphoning school funding away from public schools through vouchers and education saving accounts to support attendance in private schools diminishes the ability of our public schools to serve the remaining children, since expenses do not fall in proportion to attendance.

Public funding should only fund public schools.

The argument put forward by privatizers that our public schools are failing and in need of replacement with private, profit-driven schools is actually false.

A recent peer-reviewed journal article by researchers from the Universities of Notre Dame and Kentucky about Indiana's voucher program conclusively demonstrates that while there is no statistical difference in language skills between public school and voucher-taking private school students, math skills of voucher students decline and remain lower for years. The high-paying jobs of the future will require math skills, and these students are having the deck stacked against them.

School choice advocates would have you believe that the free market in education ensures a better, high-quality education for children, when in fact, the opposite is actually true.

The free market works on the profit motive. Business entities supplying goods and services desire to make as large a profit as possible from their operations. That means cutting expenses to a minimum to become the low-cost provider. Public entities work on standards-driven missions to provide goods and services for the benefit of everyone.

Yes, we pay our instructors more, because we only hire qualified professionals. We spend significant time and effort on our curriculums, because we utilize experts to carefully determine and review what we teach. Our buildings are expensive, because we want our children safe, secure and well-cared for when they are under our supervision.

When presented in this light, does anyone really want their children educated by the low-cost provider who is guided by the profit motive?

The General Assembly would have you believe that profit-driven, low-cost educational providers are actually best for everyone. They are currently attempting to double down on vouchers through a mechanism called educational savings accounts. These are essentially open spending debit cards given to parents whose children leave public schools and opt in to the program for their private “educational expenses.”

Vouchers and educational savings accounts are subject to less regulation, accountability and transparency than public school spending. Audits of such accounts in other states routinely uncover significant abuse. Children are the ultimate losers when their educational funding is spent by parents for non-educational purposes.

The legislature's original proposal this session was to move 90% of the governor's proposed increase in educational funding into this dubious scheme, instead of raising the salaries of the public school teachers who educate more than 90% of the state's students.

While the savings account amount has been modestly reduced, the proposal itself shows that the caucus leading the legislature cares far more about ideology than facts.

Instead of using data to drive decision-making, we are having our state policies influenced by individuals hoping to profit from providing our children with a substandard education.

The legislature has additionally proposed raising the income limits to qualify for the existing school vouchers to levels incorporating families who can only be described as “well off” or “wealthy,” undermining their original talking point of helping poor families escape “failing” schools.

This proposal will not improve the education of Indiana's children. It will not save the state any money, and it is fiscally irresponsible.

This proposal is not supported by logic or educational best practices. It can only generously be described as extremely misguided.

As a society, it is in everyone's best interest to maintain and support a strong and robust public school system for all families.

Please contact your legislator and encourage them to vote no on HB 1005.

Robert Stwalley is president of the Indiana School Boards Association and the Lafayette School Corporation Board of Trustees, with nearly 20 years experience in public school policy and guidance.

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