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
The night it rained tears
March fuels college basketball teams. Fun, glory, buzzer-beater shots and storybook endings in the NCAA Tournament await there.
MARK BENNETT: First BaconFest sure to cure your salty fried meat cravings
Bacon taught me a life lesson.
I wrapped strips of it around chicken livers and secured the cold, gooey bundles with toothpicks to earn money.
MARK BENNETT: New public-access point begins quest to create more spots to experience river
Fairness holds no power over the Wabash River.
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
MARK BENNETT: City sparkles during premiere of ‘The Drunk’
William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner cast their hometown in a starring role in their debut effort as filmmakers.
MARK BENNETT: ‘Notes on a River’ exhibition brings Wabash scenes to gallery
The best views of the Wabash come with wet, muddy feet.
MARK BENNETT: Quest for the perfect Valentine’s Day gesture may not involve gifts
You’ll need a broom, a pickup truck, trash bins, shop hooks and aspirin.
Filming a “Sanford and Son” remake? Preparing for the apocalypse?
MARK BENNETT: Illinois officials content their state has its business advantages, too
Most people count the Wabash River as an economic asset for Terre Haute. Of course, economic development officials in the Land of Lincoln beg to differ.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana should revisit its time-zone classification
Mister Spock would look at the situation in Indiana and, in that dispassionate “Star Trek” voice, utter a firm conclusion.
“That is illogical,” he’d say.
MARK BENNETT: Young at heart
Imagine an alternate ending to the old Life cereal commercial.
MARK BENNETT: The Drunk: Making peace
Terre Haute grew fond of Eugene Debs.
The process took time.
Debs film to debut at Indiana Theatre
Set in Terre Haute, based loosely on the legacy of a Terre Haute icon, the movie “The Drunk” has one appropriate place for its premiere.
MARK BENNETT: Album turns memories into musical Christmas message for Terre Haute’s Dave Frey, band
In a way, Dave Frey walked in the footsteps of Charles Schulz.
Both men worked hard to let Linus Van Pelt explain the “true meaning of Christmas.”
MARK BENNETT: ‘Longest Night Service’ a time to reflect, remember
Holiday images rarely depict hurt or struggle.
Raising the bar
Around coffeeshops, kitchen tables and office watercoolers, Hoosiers have cussed and discussed the federal health care law.
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.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- The night it rained tears