As a public school teacher for 36 years and public school advocate, I take issue with the sad and heavy-hearted responses of Tiffany Albertson (Aug. 3) and John Elcesser (Aug. 8) to Phyllis Bush’s July 19 op-ed criticizing school choice.
Albertson, the principal of Bishop Luers High School, and Elcesser, executive director of Indiana Non-Public Education Association, make similar assertions: Bush’s criticisms are unwarranted and divisive because the voucher program is good for students and families. They paint a rosy picture of a program which gives parents choice and supports diversity. The rosy picture dims if you examine the data on vouchers. The data clearly show that the criticisms are justified.
Vouchers did not create school choice. Parents have always had the choice to send their children to public schools or pay the tuition for private school. The difference is that through vouchers, our tax dollars are sent to private schools, which in Allen Country are exclusively parochial schools.
Vouchers were originally promoted as a way for families with limited income to send their children to private schools from failing public schools. After five years, the pretense of providing such opportunity has disappeared. Data from the Indiana Department of Education and the Choice Scholarship Report indicate most voucher students are not leaving failing schools; in fact, 52 percent have never attended public school!
The data from the area parochial high schools that accept vouchers show the increase in voucher students as legislators have changed the qualifying criteria. Between 2011 and 2016, the increase in vouchers is staggering and the percentage of increase jaw-dropping. (See the chart above.)
Obviously, the number of students is not growing at the same rate as vouchers in any of these schools. Education money is paying for students already in parochial schools rather than new students transferring to them.
Voucher money comes off the top of the education budget before money for public schools. In 2015-16, the net cost to taxpayers for private/parochial education through vouchers totaled a whopping $53 million.
Additional data also indicate that not all voucher-accepting schools are what Elcesser calls "beautifully diverse." Albertson stated that Bishop Luers has a diverse population with 52 percent Caucasian and 48 percent minority, but the 2015-16 data from the DOE shows 62 percent white, 38 percent minority. Despite the 10 percentage-point difference, Luers’ population seems fairly diverse, and these numbers are similar to the diversity of FWCS high schools which range from Northrop’s 61 percent white, 39 percent minority to South Side’s 21 percent white, 79 percent minority.
The same cannot be said of the other schools: Bishop Dwenger (86 percent white, 14 percent minority); Concordia Lutheran High School (78 percent white, 22 percent minority); Blackhawk Christian Middle/High (87 percent white, 13 percent minority). Elcesser might take a closer look at actual data for this area before claiming that vouchers have "opened doors to thousands of children of color."
Diversity also encompasses economic differences. The proportion of students at FWCS high schools who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch ranges from a high of 79 percent to a low of 49 percent. For the parochial schools, the range is 37 percent to 0 percent, suggesting little correlation between vouchers and poverty in these schools.
Accredited, voucher-accepting schools must comply with many of the same regulations as public schools; however, there is one very significant difference. Public schools are open to all students; parochial schools taking vouchers are not.
To attend the parochial schools in Allen County, students must complete applications that require basic information along with ISTEP scores, letters of recommendation, family financial information, placement exams and interviews by administrators. The parochial schools in our area charge an application fee ($35-$50) and/or registration fee ($100-$165) upon acceptance. And here is the key phrase – upon acceptance. Voucher-accepting schools can and do reject students.
Understandably, voucher parents are taking advantage of a program that benefits them and their children. But if these parents want a different kind of education – a faith-centered education – then they should pay for it. If they cannot afford it, then they should take that up with the religious institution.
Elcesser’s argument that voucher parents are taxpayers and their tax dollars should go to the school of their choice is rather like the argument that my tax dollar should only go to repair the roads and bridges I travel on or to pave my driveway. Public education benefits the whole community; private education does not. The arguments for the money following the child fly in the face of that perspective.
There are 1,046,527 Indiana children in public schools and 84,241 in private, mostly parochial schools. Our tax dollars should work for the public good. We should support public schools that open their doors and educate all children. Our tax dollars should not be used to pay for religious education for the few.
As Indiana’s Constitution states, knowledge and learning are "essential to the preservation of a free government," and the General Assembly should "provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all."
Terry Springer is a retired teacher and member of Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education.