Deep down, millions of Hoosiers would wear the label “advocate for public schools.”
Yes, many have their complaints, criticisms and a few “you-know-what-they-really-need-is” suggestions. But, in their heart of hearts, they want to see their alma maters and hometown public schools succeed and progress.
The proof of that bond emerges every time a community faces a possible school closing. Without fail, people arise to passionately plead to keep the doors open, and they extol the quality of the education kids receive and their school’s potential.
They want to improve their schools, not abandon or drain them.
The Indiana Constitution advocates for public schools. That document, which has been in effect since 1851, calls for the “common [or public] schools” to comprise a “general and uniform system” that is available “without charge and equally open to all.”
A hundred and 60 years later, it’s heartening to hear from folks who still believe in the spirit of the constitution’s wording. It was circumvented in this year’s session of the Indiana General Assembly. Republican lawmakers — aligned with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and state superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett — pushed through broad “education reforms,” including the nation’s most expansive use of taxpayer-funded scholarships to cover private-school tuition fees.
That new program of private-school “vouchers” paid by public funds clashes with the Indiana Constitution in numerous, seemingly obvious ways. Private schools, for example, typically charge for tuition and don’t have to accept all children.
Advocates for that diversion of limited public funds to private institutions know the idea contradicts the constitution, but they also know legal loopholes can be found and used. They rationalize the new law by claiming it gives parents choices they wouldn’t otherwise have, and that competition for students from private schools will inspire improvement in public schools.
Not everyone agrees, including an organization quite comfortable with the label “advocate for public schools.”
The Indiana Coalition for Public Education gathered for its first meeting two weekends ago in Indianapolis. The group, which formed in January, is an important counter-balance to the privatization movement that undermines the state constitution’s commitment to public schools open to all. “The intent is to support public education,” said Tim Skinner, a recently retired Vigo County School Corporation teacher and one of the outnumbered Democrats in the state senate. “The biggest concern this group had was the vouchers.”
That’s why the 700-member coalition has mounted a court challenge to the voucher law, which took effect this summer. The lawsuit points out that the constitution states that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” Nearly all of the private schools qualifying for the voucher program are parochial.
“The largest response is from parents who want their children to be in religious schools, and now the state is paying for it,” said Vic Smith, a retired teacher and principal and one of six coalition board members. “We feel that’s wrong.”
Plus, the money available to be drawn from that treasury is particularly precious now. Public schools, especially those in urban and rural areas, are already dealing with dwindling funds. Siphoning any of those into private schools makes a difficult task of teaching a broad spectrum of students — not just those who fit certain criteria — even harder. The vouchers, available to lower- and middle-income families, are worth up to $7,930 a year, according to those incomes. The law made 7,500 vouchers available this year, and more than 3,700 students are receiving the money, so far.
Next year, 15,000 will be available. The following year, the cap comes off.
Public school districts are just beginning to see how this new uncertainty will affect their budgets. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated that $58 million could transfer from public to private schools during the next two school years, according to the coalition.
This state is home to some wonderful parochial schools that carry out the mission of the institution behind them. Smith and Skinner both emphasized those schools have a role in Indiana. The public funding is the problem. “This is a great democracy; everybody has a right to form a school and promote their own agenda,” Smith said, “but I don’t think the public should be paying for it.”
The coalition also challenges some of the assertions of Daniels, Bennett and the reform backers. Public school performance is not declining, according to the coalition’s research. Those numbers show, instead, steady improvement during the past 20 years in attendance, and scores in SAT math, ACT, National Assessment, and ISTEP-Plus, along with a rise in the percentage of students earning Academic Honors and Core 40 diplomas.
“That is not a record of failure,” Smith said.
Skinner pointed out a study by education historian Diane Ravitch, who had been an advocate of vouchers and “school-choice” programs during her days in the President George H.W. Bush administration. She wrote a book called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” Ravitch concluded there is no difference in reading or math test results of comparable students in voucher situations and those in public schools.
In an address last spring in Clay County, Bennett said he is often asked how someone with his title — state superintendent of public instruction — can advocate for private schools and home schooling. “My answer to that is, 1.2 million children,” he said. “If you read Indiana law, there is nothing in my job description that says my job is to advocate for public schools.” His department, he added, also provides services for public charter schools, private schools and home schools.
Those additional duties are just that, additional. The state needs an advocate for the school system the constitution requires. Maybe the Indiana Coalition for Public Education can fill that role.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
Deep down, millions of Hoosiers would wear the label “advocate for public schools.”
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
John bypassed by Hall of Fame again
Baseball Hall of Fame electors have bypassed Tommy John again. The Terre Haute-born pitcher, who won 288 games in 26 big-league seasons, didn’t receive enough votes from the Veterans Committee as it cast ballots on Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings.
Tim Meadows: SNL cast member knew he was prime time
If you watched the first broadcast of “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 11, 1975, raise your hand.
That gives you something in common with Tim Meadows.
MARK BENNETT: Walk of Fame inductee would stand tall in any era
Unlike most of us, Amory Kinney didn’t let the wall around his comfort zone grow taller as time passed.
MARK BENNETT: Words, and what they mean, is what we remember
I remember scanning the granite wall at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, looking for those words.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John getting another shot at Baseball Hall of Fame
Go ahead, circle Dec. 9 on your calendar.
Filling our void: Terre Haute artist Bill Wolfe poured his heart and soul into the project of a lifetime
Bill Wolfe thumbed through a series of photographs documenting his sculpture of basketball legend Larry Bird.
MARK BENNETT: Keeping Terre Haute a vibrant city ‘worth doing’
The past, present and future had just converged at the Crossroads of America.
The moment was made possible by the gutsy spirit of 1920s Terre Haute. Without it, the city would look starkly different.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John’s Field of Dreams
A kid pedals a bicycle, a ball glove looped over the handlebar, headed to a sandlot game.
It didn’t get much better than that for a 10-year-old in summertime.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s Donnelly part of ‘The Middle’ that got deal done
Hanging out in the middle isn’t cool.
Its occupants don’t attract a captivated circle of listeners at parties, their comments don’t inspire hell-yeahs on Facebook, and they don’t pretend to always be right.
MARK BENNETT: ISU professor’s book on Churchill to be TV period drama
Somewhere, Winston Churchill is lighting a celebratory cigar in Michael Shelden’s honor.
MARK BENNETT: Restoration improves courthouse top’s standing in skyline
Terre Haute has a skyline.
From some angles, it consists of billboards, restaurant marquees and convenience-store signs. From other spots, the outlines of historic buildings, church steeples, college dorms and old industries jut into the horizon.
MARK BENNETT: Inspiring project connects Blues Festival, B&G Club members with music
Think a decade into the future. You’re relaxing amid a sea of fellow lawn-chair sitters at Seventh and Wabash, watching the 23rd annual Blues at the Crossroads Festival. Suddenly, the guy on stage starts playing your old Fender guitar. He sounds like the next B.B. King. Then, the guitarist dedicates a song to the person who donated that worn Telecaster to the youth music program in which he learned to play it.
MARK BENNETT: Even Marty McFly wouldn’t want to go back to those paydays
Reliving the 1980s may sound tempting.
Ah, simpler times. Then again … hair styles as big as mushroom clouds, “Miami Vice” jackets, the trickle-down theory, New Coke, Yugos.
OK, “Back to the Future”-style nostalgia obviously has its limits.
MARK BENNETT: Hoops film focuses on life of ‘Slick’ Leonard
Many Americans connect basketball with Indiana.
MARK BENNETT: Rose-Hulman bridge design would let people walk, run, ride across Wabash River
Four months, 500 miles and 18 towns.
In the course of compiling the “500 Miles of Wabash” series, which concludes this Sunday, Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis and I heard valuable insights from dozens of people who live, work and recreate along Indiana’s state river. One comment seems particularly relevant to Terre Haute, especially as the ongoing 2013 Year of the River celebration stirs ideas. The quotation affirms the potential of a stellar proposal this community ought to consider.
MARK BENNETT: When did athleticism surpass skill in sports?
Baseball has gotten too athletic.
MARK BENNETT: Steve Martin keeps Terre Haute on burner
If insults are a form of flattery, Steve Martin still likes us.
Better yet, he hasn’t forgotten us.
MARK BENNETT: At 71, Paul McCartney still rocking it eight days a week
I’ll admit, I worried about Paul McCartney during the blistering intro to “Helter Skelter.”
MARK BENNETT: Forget the cellphone, enjoy the summer
The third rail post from the left on the second-floor patio. By holding a cellphone at eye level, with your left hand, while standing perfectly still, without blinking, a faint one-bar signal was possible. Possible. Otherwise, there was no connection to the outside world at this retreat spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where my wife and I stayed earlier this month
MARK BENNETT: Time for surf, sand and a good book
I can read a book on the beach. Until I start sweating. Then it feels like exercise, minus the fitness perks. My brain shifts into neutral as the waves roll in, blissfully washing away footprints in the sand and my inclination to think. Better put, I enjoy starting a book on the beach, and finishing it later, elsewhere.
Police: Mom, son conspire to kill witness
The Clay County Sheriff’s Department seems to have prevented what it believes was a mother-and-son conspiracy to commit murder.
Banks of the Wabash Festival is more than just yearly entertainment
Pioneers think counterintuitively. Where others see widespread apathy, they focus on the possibility for progress. In a way, the 2013 Year of the River celebration began in the 1970s.
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MARK BENNETT: Memories, emotions rush back with announcement of new pope
I saw a pope once.Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot. Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- John bypassed by Hall of Fame again